Daryl Bem became a minor media star recently with his paper on ESP. While his work has been subject to some rather serious criticism (mainly in regards to the methodology) it does raise some interesting matters.
Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years.
In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”
In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos, but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”
While I am rather skeptical of his claims, I will assume (for the sake of the discussion that follows) that his results are statistically significant. On this assumption, some interesting issues in epistemology and metaphysics arise. At the core, the main matter is how information from the future would be “known” (epistemology) and what features reality would need in order for this to occur.
As noted above, Bem seems to take his tests as indicating some sort of backwards causation. Normal causation (if one dares to use such a phrase) involves time’s arrow always flying one way: towards the future and not back from the future. But, if the subjects “know” about the future or, more generally, that their present mental states are affected by future events, then it would seem that time’s arrow can fly both ways.
On the one hand, this seems to be rather implausible. After all, the general consensus among layman and experts would seem to be that time is a one way sort of thing and that causation does not work backwards in time.
On the other hand, time is a rather odd sort of thing and it would be hasty to assume that our assumption about time being one way is correct. After all, time travel certainly has a lot of appeal and it can be argued that it is at least possible. As such, perhaps it is not impossible for events of the future to have an impact on peoples’ mental states in the relative past. This, of course, would require that people have some seemingly unusually epistemic capabilities, but that is what ESP is all about.
Of course, it does seem somewhat extreme to conclude that our concepts of time and causation are fundamentally wrong and to embrace some rather dubious epistemology because some college students appear to be marginally better at picking out the porn. As such, it would seem sensible to consider some alternatives.
Since I recently taught about Hobbes and I am currently teaching about Spinoza, one possibility that occurred to me is that a deterministic universe could be used to explain these results without a need for any change in our concepts of causation, time or epistemology. If the events of the future follow of necessity from the events of the past, then sensing the future would not need to be a matter of the future somehow causing effects in the past. Rather, a person could predict the future based on what they know (or believe) about the present and the past. Since our epistemic abilities are rather limited, then our predictions would tend to be rather limited as well.
Speaking of dead European philosophers, Leibniz seems to provide a metaphysical system that would allow for the sort of ESP that Bem seems to be discussing.
Leibniz claims that the world is composed of monads and that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world. Crudely put, each of us is a monad (or rather the dominant monad in a collection of monads). Leibniz famously claimed that the monads have no windows-nothing comes out of or goes into the monads. This raises the obvious problem about how you, for example, can read this blog. Leibniz’s answer is that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world-though the clarity varies. As he sees it, when God created the universe, he created all the monads and each monad has all its experiences “placed” within it. To use a crude analogy, the movie that is your life is placed on a DVD that is placed within your mind. It plays and thus you have the experiences you do. As such, when you read this blog, your inner DVD is playing that experience for you.
Fortunately God has synced up all our inner DVDs so that they play in pre-established harmony. So, for example, if my inner DVD is playing so that I am “hearing” you speak, your inner DVD is at the point where you are “speaking” to me. Since each of us contains within us all our experiences, it would thus seem possible for people to “skip ahead” a bit and “see” events that have not yet happened. While this would seem like seeing the future, it would simply be like seeing what is on the DVD by skipping around in the scenes rather than playing the movie out normally. Thus, the students who were able to pick out the porn could have “skipped” ahead to see the porn on their inner DVD and thus known what to pick “ahead” of time.
Leibniz also claims that “each body feels all that happens in the universe, so he who sees all, might read in each what happens everywhere.” This would seem to allow for the possibility of the sort of ESP Bem is discussing.
In addition to his monads, Leibniz is also known for his claims about possible worlds, namely this being the best of the lot. Another philosopher who is well known for his work on possible worlds is the American philosopher David Lewis. In his On The Plurality of Worlds Lewis presents the hypothesis that possible worlds are real and that we, in fact, inhabit one. Of course, our world is the actual world to us. He even discusses the epistemological implications of such worlds and considers that they could be epistemically or doxastically accessible to us. Interestingly enough, Lewis’ possible worlds would seem to provide a metaphysical basis for ESP.
In terms of how this would work, one merely needs to assume that there are possible worlds, that we have epistemic access to them (that is, we can know about them or at least have warranted beliefs about their content), and that there are worlds whose timeline is ahead of our own (that is, their present is our future).
This all works out in the following manner. Suppose that Jack is a subject in Bem’s porn experiment. Sitting at the computer, he somehow accesses possible worlds (I’ll just help myself to Lewis’ arguments about how this works). In some of these worlds there are counterparts to Jack who are also involved in experiments being run by Bem’s counterpart. Crudely put, a counterpart to the actual Jack (the Jack in our possible world or Jack@thisworld) is whatever most resembles Jack in another possible world (such a Jack would be Jack@thatworld). In some of these worlds, the Jack counterparts are ahead of Jack@thisworld in the experiment, so that they have seen the results of their picks. In some cases the picks yield porn and in other cases they do not. Since Jack wants to see the porn, he will presumably make his choice based on the results experienced by the other Jacks. Given that Jack presumably has, at best, “fuzzy” access to these possible worlds and that the worlds would not be exactly like this world, the minor increase in correct picks is easily explained. Really.
In this scenario, the future is not causing anything in the past. Rather, Jack is merely accessing a possible world whose present is a counterpart of our future. Nothing could be more sensible.
While this is interesting, it is not without its problems. One obvious problem is that this is rather weird and mysterious. Another problem is that if future possibilities are grounded in the presents of possible worlds, then there would need to be a world for each world’s possible future, thus creating what would seem to be a rather unfortunate infinite regress. But, that seems to be a small price to pay for an account of ESP.
One final thought is maybe we are in an eternally recurring world and a bit sticks from the last time around. So maybe the kids keep getting a bit better at picking out the porn. Who knows, a few million more times around and they will pick porn at 100%.