23 December 2011

PRECOGNITION – the problem of free will

I must state before I start this particular story that I am quite a sceptic at heart, mathematically and scientifically inclined.

At the age of 9 I had a feeling that I gained some superpowers. I could make kids in my class trip up at a distance and things of that sort. I told my closest friends in class and decided I was going to prove to them my immense powers by creating an earthquake. I gave them a specific day; “in 3 days time”... then for three days before I went to bed I visualised a quake. On the 4th day I showed up at school thinking I had failed but instead I found all my friends freaked out, one of them holding a newspaper. The previous day one of the largest quakes of the century had struck a few hundred miles from us. On the front page they wrote of victims in the hundreds. I can still remember the shock and the guilt I felt. From that day I decided I would never use my powers again to hurt people even if I got very angry at someone.
Looking back I can certainly give the more mundane explanation; that most kids at that age think they have superpowers and most will try them out. I can imagine there are thousands of kids out there who feel they might have caused a quake, a flood or a crash. Many kids might have had a so called premonitory dream and felt responsible for what happened after. In both these cases we can see how a bad understanding of probability and selection bias might mislead us not to see the obvious; that these are COINCIDENCES.

The problem I have with that is that I had in the years that followed many cases of Precognition. Flashes of near future events (often not linked with what I was doing at the time) that would come true. I decided to read a few SCEPTIC books (Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermes, Viaggio nel mondo del paranormale by Piero Angela, etc.) but though they made sense on
most things, I wasn’t 100% convinced.

I still get flashes of precognition and with my super sceptic analysis of statistics, probabilities, and mind selection bias, unconscious perception, etc. I can discard most of them. But there are still some that are so strong that they test even the hardest sceptic, such as “oh I’m going to be shocked to see a green Ferrari around the next corner and then seeing one and being shocked (it wasn’t a pretty sight!). Or at the casino, having a flash of getting two consecutive numbers right at a roulette, declaring it out loud to my friends next to me and proceeding to win the next 2 bets with 2 en pleins. (no, I hadn’t been 1296 times to the casino stating “I will get 2 numbers in a row” each time).

At this point I decided to research a little and ask about a possible parapsychological explanation (those were pre Wikipedia days, so I asked an esoteric bookshop owner in France). Of the various theories and explanations, the one I prefer is that our “soul” is made of a few subatomic particles that centre around our bodies, in the present. These are free to move a little away from our body and also (following quantum laws of physics) a little away from the present into the past or into the future. Then upon returning from, say, the future, some of the “memory” of what they perceived is passed to our consciousness. This is usually just a flash or a sensation due to the limited number of particles carrying the information.

The “soul” could be made of Tachyons or psitrons, time travelling particles with imaginary mass. Or more simply our awareness could be fundamentally trans-temporal as discussed by Dunne (1927) and Saltmarsh (1938) and while we are only ever consciously aware of some limited temporal range, unconsciously a much wider temporal range of information is sampled and used for the benefit of the organism.

Besides the fact Tachyons have never been observed, violation of causality and temporal paradoxes all seem to point to their non existence. But even supposing that somehow precognition was possible, what fascinates me is the concept of free will.

Is what I see in the future going to happen no matter what I do ? If so free will is only an illusion created by our limited conscious awareness that only allows us to see one frame at a time instead of the whole film stock. More on free will in a future post.