At the Boundary of Knowledge

published September 2016
Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
magazine cover

The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk.

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined.

But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminiferous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined. The reason has to do with the relation of the known to the unknown.

As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.

Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.

topics in this column: , , , , ,

25 Comments to “At the Boundary of Knowledge”

  1. Val Says:

    ‘Everything is made of particles’ is an assumption, based on observation. That’s fine, but what do we observe really? The universe we see is a model of the actual universe, created in the brain as it is processing signals. It’s a natural, vivid ‘hologram’ in a natural computer. A representation of reality. A depiction. A particle is also a depiction. A depiction of a wave, one might say, but a wave is also a depiction.

    All kinds of properties of the universe we actually experience evolved as life evolved senses. Light, color, sound, a notion of space, time, anything. With these properties the brain creates a quite understandable vivid 3D world with a self-conscious ‘I’ in the middle. Our universe is our reality, but it’s also a natural ‘virtual reality’. This is why we see weird things like the wave-particle duality as demonstrated in the double slit experiment, superposition, entanglement, why it seems the universe ‘just’ came into existence some 14 billion years ago, including time. It may even be the reason why the universe actually seems to be a kind of hologram, as physicists have noticed.

    Life evolved senses through evolving awareness of sensations, driving natural selection, until even self-conscious creatures like modern humans walked around, with such understanding of the universe that advanced technology became possible. We understand the evolution of creatures like us in the universe we are aware of. However, we see the universe from our special perspective in space and time. We can imagine what the world looked like when there were only primitive bacteria. We can imagine walking around back then, seeing clouds in the sky, hearing the ocean, imagine that multi-cellular life one day might detect these things, becoming conscious of it. Point is however, life had not evolved these ‘brain holograms’ yet, these sensations. The universe we know now simply did not exist back then. The world was a quantum soup, so to speak, and even that is from our special perspective. Animals didn’t just detect i.e. the color red one day, Life evolved it. The color that is, not the wavelength. It’s the same with all sensations brains use to create a self-consciousness ‘I’ in a vivid, real 3D world, rather than just dumb processing, calculating figures as a human made computer in a simulation would do.

    Life evolved our vivid ‘model’ of the universe, as layers of reality unfolded over many generations of brains, through evolving consciousness, intelligence via natural selection. Question is: is this the end of the line, or are there deeper layers of reality we just don’t sense yet or we just started to sense, some of us maybe, yet in a very primitive way? In my opinion one cannot say ‘this is the final depiction of the universe’. Why would it? Just because the species involved reached a higher level of consciousness, ‘invented’ spoken language, quite recently? Even the observable universe still has many questions, like dark matter for example.

    This all does not mean that spoon bending people aren’t illusionists or con men, or that there are really haunted houses, but something like telepathy: why not. Since existence revolves around consciousness and we all share the same, deeper universe that evolved our consciousness and keeps expanding it, maybe it’s a matter of being conscious of a certain sensitivity. If it were true telepathy is just another potential of the universe it would be possible that this sense is still in a very primitive state. Some people may have this sense then, but vague. Others not. Maybe it would evolve into a common, clear sense over many generations, maybe not. It would also be possible that it’s a sense that was more common many generations ago, but eroded as spoken language evolved, a far more stronger and direct form of communication in an increasingly complex world, away from the natural state their ancestors came from.

    As for the (non) existence of a god, well… The universe evolved life, life evolved consciousness and sensations that didn’t exist before. Natural intelligence kind of created our model of the universe through natural selection. The color red, for example, did not exist before there were brains. Again, the color that is, that property of light we actually see, not the wavelength or what we picture as photons. Sensations need consciousness and consciousness needs sensations. The universe, life evolved sensations, kept adding new properties, new layers of reality. Up to the point where we are now. This is only possible if there was a potential for it all to exist. Obviously the universe has this potential. For life this is an omnipotent source of creativity. Life was ‘created’ by it. Life as a whole ‘grows to’ it, is ‘raised’ by it. All to the benefit of life. This ‘source’ isn’t a man on a cloud or a spirit or a force, or something you can call when you want your soccer club to win a match, or something that insists on wearing pink hats and bowing three times a day, ‘or else!’. But it exists. The core of quite some religions and creation myths: “everything was fine for man until man spoke of things that did not exist, like ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘gods’, ‘devils’, ‘supernatural’, basically ‘cursing in paradise’, calling non-existing things into existence, until man would understand there are no such things, that there is nothing but life, that life did not create man to spend an eternity in exile, but to enjoy life as it was intended, in complete harmony, as one.”

    Science works, skepticism is fine. The deep universe however is a little bit more creative and complex than we often imagine.

  2. Robin Says:

    Val, could you please explain how you get from potential as a property of the universe (i.e. things that could happen) to potential as a property of an agent, especially where you give it intention (“…enjoy life as it was intended…”)

    Also, if you are using inverted commas (‘created’, ‘grows’, ‘raised’) to indicate that you are not being literal, what is your true meaning in these sentences?

    Thanks!

  3. Randy Weiss Says:

    <>
    Life created man (and all living things) without any ‘intent’. Life has no goal other than to survive in the chaos on the surface of our planet (and hopefully other planets as well). There is certainly not ‘harmony, as one’ afoot in the land. Until there is some solid compelling evidence of ‘intent’ one must assume we are all part of a chaotic system. Accepting this is key to being free from the illusion of human extra-natural exceptionalism (including all para-normal effects). This understanding, and the freedom that arises from it, often leads to a profound happiness.

  4. Steve Johnson Says:

    Randy, you wrote “Life created man”. Using verbs such as “created” carries baggage that leads the reader to visualize intent even though you immediately disavow the meaning. Far better to first define life as an enduring electro-chemical process that results in increasingly complex physical structures that acquire and store electro-chemical energy. You then go on to say that “life has no goal other than to survive” Again, a goal implies intent. I would argue that life has no more goal to survive than a quartz crystal has an intent to grow.

  5. amoron Says:

    Without having read the article, I can make an educated guess that the author fancies that our generation is the first generation to really understand science and get everything mostly right. All prior generations that thought the exact same thing (some even proclaiming physics and philosophy dead)were just “naive”.

  6. Clive Durdle Says:

    Aristotle used the concepts of logos, reason, ethos, authority and pathos, emotion of the crowd.

    As the subjects you note are clear examples of ethos and pathos, is there anything else to research if it has been established they are not based on reason?

  7. Hypatia Says:

    Folks, this is a plea to use “humankind” or”humanity” instead of the outdated biblical “man” or mankind”. Hard to break ingrained habits, but let’s give it a try.

  8. Warren Wright Says:

    All extremely interest and well reasoned, however, in the end (if there is one), the exploration of existence still ends in MYSTERY!

  9. Joseph Neumann Says:

    feelings, seansatios, thoughts esist and are very real

    All combined are sometimes dsiganted as “soul”/

    Thus the “soul” is real and exists

  10. K Bishop Says:

    amoron, “without having read the article”, any comment you make is irrelevant to this discussion.

  11. amoron Says:

    bishop, not really irrelevant. skeptic is very predictable. it’s like a magician’s trade, it’s all just a different finish on the same mixture of smoke and mirrors.

  12. Mathew Goldstein Says:

    If supernatural forces stirred particles or forces then not only could we detect those forces but we could also identify those forces as likely being supernatural. Natural is limited to the physical, material, mechanical which logically imposes behavioral constraints so that forces which violate those constraints would evidence supernaturalism. I generally agree with Mr. Shermer regarding empiricism and skepticism and the topics he writes about, but on this one question regarding whether supernaturalism versus naturalism is a meaningful distinction we disagree. He says it is not a meaningful distinction and I think he is wrong about that.

  13. An Absurdist Says:

    Notwithstanding a few creationists out there, I think we can all agree that the universe existed long before we humans arrived on the scene and that it will continue to exist long after we’re gone. This being true, then we can easily conclude that the universe does not need any physical laws to control its behavior. It’s we humans who need such laws – to understand and try to explain what we observe in all of nature. And these laws evolve contemporaneous with human knowledge.

    As the theories of really smart guys like Newton and Einstein are tested and confirmed, new laws replace or modify old ones and new ones are thought up to fill in the gaps. And on it goes until theory becomes, beyond any reasonable doubt, a demonstrable and unfalsifiable fact. And then somebody discovers something that falsifies the “fact” and the search for truth goes on.

    Another important concept here is that we humans can only perceive the universe within the confines in which we exist and through our senses; trapped in three dimensional space and riding along the arrow of time at the human scale. This is sometimes called the Anthropic Principle. In fact, all the metrics we use as standards and measures are anthropocentric. A light-year, for example, is the distance light travels in one earth-year, which is also one human-year.

    Of course, humans can also build physical theories out of imagination and extrapolations, most of which depend on mathematics as a proxy for the senses. Eienstein, for example, imagined riding on a beam of light and imagining what he would see. That, in turn, led to his conclusion that the speed of light is constant, which then became integral to his “Special Theory of Relativity.”

    Science has developed and is continuing to develop the tools and intellectual concepts that we humans can use to better understand the universe in all of its aspects. Meanwhile, the universe just rocks along. It has no secrets, no mysteries. Those are our problems to try and solve, and do so the only way we can – anthropically.

  14. Warren Wright Says:

    Pardon another comment, but until we can answer ALL of the What, When, Who, Where, How and Why questions completely, then it pays not to be overly certain—especially the WHY of it all (if there is any).

  15. Don Says:

    I think we have not yet caught sight of the “ultimate” level of understanding of the nature of the universe and because of the probable nature of the universe we won’t ever reach it.

  16. Don Says:

    I think we have not yet caught sight of the “ultimate” level of understanding of the nature of the universe and because of the probable nature of the universe we won’t ever reach it.

  17. Jim McCarthy Says:

    We know what evidence supports; beyond that is mystery.
    To pretend that we know more than what evidence supports is
    belief. To believe in God or anything supernatural is exactly equal
    to believing that God doesn’t exist. (I’m not talking about the silly
    gods of our world religions or anything man has invented.)
    Now, “God” exists only as a belief. To say that will always be the
    case is to go beyond what evidence supports and it seems to me
    that we have no right to go there.

  18. Roy Niles Says:

    One commenter here wrote: “This being true, then we can easily conclude that the universe does not need any physical laws to control its behavior.”
    Of course the universe needs what we call laws, which more properly should or could be called regulations. And the consistencies that scientists have been able to discover in these laws (and especially in the ways they can act competitively) should tell us (assuming our logic is of any value) that these regulations cannot have been created by consistent accidents.
    The best that we’re able to realistically conclude is that our regulatory laws and functional systems of the universe have been intelligently constructed and intelligently evolved. And if we’ve been presuming that the idea of an intelligently constructed universe is a supernatural concept, we may well be wrong.
    Because intelligence as a natural force does not need an agent to be a self operating, self constructing, self evolving entity. Especially as those who’ve postulated that natural behavior needs an agent to behave itself have produced as supernatural a concept as the ones that postulate the necessity for supernaturally intelligent gods.

  19. Charles Stephens Says:

    Yes, we creationists are few. There are few who inherit salvation and eternal life in God’s Kingdom of Heaven.
    Others stumble over themselves while trying to explain why, if humans evolved from primitives then why do humans and these primatives co-exist today. Why didn’t the primatives disappear after humans evolved from them?
    Cancer. Ah-ha, many humans have cancer because they harmed and molested God’s children. Show me one person who’s shoes don’t fit this reality. Scientists are going to find a natural human cure for cancer that they brought on themselves from a supernatural entity, God.
    Your Big Picture is just another attempt by Satan to turn some some of us born again in Christ creationists away from God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.

  20. Ian Wardell Says:

    Just started reading it:

    “Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure”.

    My decision to study philosophy at University rather than Mathematics was attributed to . .umm . . my decision. Now it’s understood to be the mindless neurons firing in my brain according to physical laws.

    Not an auspicious start …

  21. Ian Wardell Says:

    “If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God?”

    This guy is just a moron . .is there any purpose served by reading any more??

  22. Ian Wardell Says:

    Read it all. No there wasn’t.

  23. Bob Pease Says:

    Hypatia Says:
    September 14th, 2016 at 8:13 am

    “Folks, this is a plea to use “humankind” or”humanity” instead of the outdated biblical “man” or mankind”. Hard to break ingrained habits, but let’s give it a try.”

    *************

    Suggestion

    It is clear that the initial placement of “Hu” remedies Politically incorrect connotations

    To be consistent’ an additional “hu” must be affixed for any subsequent user.

    Thus “Huhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhumankind” would be the latest unsexist acceptable form to non=sexist speakers.

    perhaps stuff like “Hu253mankind ” would shorten the madness to a vestige of sanity.

    Dr. Sidethink, Hp. D.

  24. Ray Madison Says:

    Charles Stephens writes:
    “Your Big Picture is just another attempt by Satan to turn some some of us born again in Christ creationists away from God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.”
    Satan doesn’t get along with ghosts? Who knew?

  25. Mike Poole Says:

    I spot a fundamental flaw in this article. In his reference:

    “But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.”

    This boundary would be significant if the size of the sphere was a significant percentage of the body of knowledge. Say for example, the body of unknown is a lake, and the sphere of knowledge is half of it.

    However, it would be insignificant if the body of the unknown is huge. Say for example our sphere of knowledge is a molecule of water in the unknown of the pacific ocean or worse, all the water in the known universe. You can double all you want and the result is still miniscule.

    The more physics finds unknown and unanswered questions that we did not know enough to even ask 50 years ago, the more I realize the folly of using arguments like this to prove or disprove the paranormal. It goes both ways.