An unexpected byproduct of Similarity is that, if the theory is true, we may be able to control our future in a positive way by our own actions, for example:
– By visualizing outcomes that we would like to see, which you might call “positive thinking”; and
– By setting up complex patterns in the world around us that will be maintained if future events occur the way we want them to.
This blog briefly describes the theory, with links for more information. If you’re mainly interested in its practical application, skip down to the Science Speculation section.
Here’s what Similarity purports to show:
– That there may be room within accepted scientific theory for extra-sensory effects, without violating the known laws of physics.
This is what Similarity does not show:
– That psychic phenomena actually exist.
Here are the shortcomings of Similarity as a theory:
– Similarity is an ad hoc theory constructed as an existence proof that such a theory is possible; it is not derived from underlying basic principles.
– Similarity is based on classical physics and has not been extended to the quantum or relativistic domain.
– Similarity modifies some cherished scientific principles such as causality and locality, but to such a small degree that it may not possible to prove they are being violated.
– Because Similarity’s calculations take into account patterns at remote locations and times, the theory is very difficult to prove or disprove using traditional research methods, since no experiment can be truly isolated from outside influences.
– Similarity makes predictions that can be proven or disproven. However, if one tries to apply Similarity to make major changes in events or patterns, the theory predicts a null (random chance) result. Thus Similarity can probably not be used in the way that one might wish, for example to assure an improbable windfall in the stock market, the casino or the lottery.
I developed Similarity as a theory over an eleven-year period and published a 22-page summary in a professional journal in 1981. The full mathematical discussion runs to several hundred pages.
Science and ESP
The book Science and ESP by J R Smythies was published in 1967 and caught my attention. It described an entire area of research that had never been mentioned in my physics coursework at the University of Texas and Caltech. That field was called Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), and studied the transmission of information, thoughts or feelings from one person to another, in the absence of any known means of communication. ESP includes telepathy (thought-reading) but also embraces other situations where something is sensed that happens at some other place or some future or past time. A broader term, Psi or parapsychology, is also used, which includes even more exotic (flaky?) phenomena: psychokinesis, reincarnation, near-death experiences and ghost-like manifestations.
The Scientific Assessment of ESP
I bought and read a large number of books ranging from dry statistical studies to fanciful dream-interpretation handbooks. Among the things I learned:
– Although the existence of ESP is denied by most scientists, English scientists have been less dogmatic in their denials; in fact, ESP has been intensively studied by English psychologists at least since the Victorian Era.
– Many honest and sincere researchers obtained evidence of ESP that was later found to be spurious, as the result of poor experimental design, unconscious experimenter bias, information leakage, or actual fraud on the part of the test subject. In this list I haven’t included the possibility of intentional fraud by the researcher, although that is certainly possible; however, I personally do not believe that all the ESP researchers are charlatans.
– Many times a researcher has found a person who seemed to have amazing abilities; however, as the experiments continued the abilities gradually disappeared.
– The outcome of ESP experiments seems to be biased toward fulfilling the expectations of the experimenter and the test subject, even when great efforts are made to eliminate bias; thus scientists sympathetic to ESP find evidence supporting their view, and skeptics similarly confirm their beliefs.
– The scientific community sees no persuasive evidence that ESP exists, as evidenced for example by a National Academies of Science report.
– Some professional skeptics have made it their life’s purpose to denounce and pick holes in every research paper providing support for ESP. Science is supposed to keep an open mind on all subjects, but the deniers sometimes appear driven by a religious fervor that is not receptive to any contrary view. The key question is whether the skeptics have become too dogmatic and drifted into pseudoskepticism.
Art’s Assessment of ESP
I have read the skeptics and the supporters; I have read the wackos and the sober plodding researchers. Here’s where I come out:
I have not personally experienced mind reading or anything that I could not explain. Since I am a scientist, I look for logical physical explanations when I encounter coincidences, such as anticipating an event in advance, or finding myself already thinking about a topic that someone else brings up. Because I’m trained to be skeptical of things I cannot see, I’m a poor candidate for ESP anyway: people that study this area say that you have to be receptive to experience such events.
Although ESP is not a part of my life, that doesn’t mean ESP doesn’t exist for someone else. There have been many persuasive positive results from researchers whom I believe have tried to be honest. So I think it is possible that something exists, even though I can’t point to an example in my personal life.
To me there are two big hurdles in considering ESP:
– ESP can’t be reproduced upon demand; and
– There’s no theory to explain why it might work.
The lack of reproducibility is not such a biggie, in my mind. After all, if telepathy and precognition and all that stuff exist, then there is no way to completely isolate and control an experiment: everything that goes on in the experimental lab is connected with everything else, perhaps independently of distance and time frame. We may need to re-define what we mean by a reproducible experiment, but that in itself does not say that ESP is a falsity.
A bigger problem is the lack of a theory. We have a consistent set of physical laws that describe how the world works. Any uncertainties tend to be at the extremes of size: in the rapid reactions of elusive elementary particles, and in the eons-long evolution of the entire universe. Just about everything between the extremes follows very precise laws that have been confirmed many times. And those laws make concrete quantitative predictions that have been validated over and over.
If there’s going to be a theory of ESP, it shouldn’t violate all the things we already know about physics. For example, if someone is going to postulate that the human brain is so marvelous that it produces a mysterious field that can influence other brains at a distance, where is this field anyway? Does it have charge, frequency, duration, spin, strangeness and conservation laws? How can this field be measured, and why haven’t we already seen it?
Contemporary science believes that the brain is nothing but a network in which chemical reactions cause the transfer of charged ions from one cell to another. That’s what we find when we look at individual brain cells, and collections of brain cells that make up the nervous systems of jellyfish, earthworms, rats and primates. So to me it’s very non-scientific to postulate some new ethereal field that only occurs in human brains and can’t be observed everywhere else around us. To me, that’s not a productive path for exploring ESP’s existence or non-existence.
Four Possible Truths
This reasoning leads me to four possibilities, expressed simply as follows:
– Case 1: ESP does not exist. Then belief or disbelief in it must be a matter of faith, and I as a scientist have nothing to say about it.
– Case 2: ESP exists, but is not explainable using physics. Since I’m a physicist, my tools don’t fit the problem and therefore I don’t need to waste time on it.
– Case 3: ESP exists and can be explained with known physical laws. So far, no one has come up with a useful predictive theory based on, oh, electromagnetic waves, pulses of neutrinos, muons, Higgs bosons or what have you. So this has thus far not been a fruitful approach.
– Case 4: ESP exists and can be explained by new physical laws, which however do not conflict with observed physical phenomena.
Case 4 is the one I am discussing here. I crystallized it for myself by asking this question: Is there a way to modify physics that allows ESP to exist, while maintaining compatibility with all the physical phenomena that we observe and explain so successfully?
Belief and Disbelief
In the discussion above, you may note that I did not claim that I believe or disbelieve in something like ESP. I don’t consider “belief” to be a scientific term. Every time approximately 24 hours have elapsed, I expect the sun to rise, but I don’t classify that as a belief. It has happened so many times that we assign it a high probability of happening, so high that we rely on it. But that’s not the same thing as a belief, which borders on faith.
The sun rising is not something to “believe” in because it is not an unchangeable characteristic of the natural world. An asteroid could happen by and pull us out of the sun’s orbit, hurling us into outer space. We could wait a long time until our sun explodes and is no more. Or the earth could be shaken by internal tides that stop its rotation. True, these are low-probability events, but the mere fact that we can think about them means that the rising of the sun is not absolutely assured.
Therefore, to me ESP is not a matter of belief; it is a matter of scientific evidence. The evidence to date is less than certain, and may even be nil. However, the evidence as I read it does not disprove ESP in a convincing manner. All we know at this time is that many people believe in things like “hunches” and prediction, and that science has no way to produce such phenomena on demand. Case unproven.
Similarity as Repeated Patterns
There are two principles underlying Similarity as a theory: probability, and patterns. Here’s where those ideas come from.
Laboratory experiments in ESP have often studied telepathy (“mind reading”), clairvoyance (guessing the identity of a card without seeing it) or precognition (guessing correctly something that will happen in the future). The experiments are conducted by psychologists because they involve the workings of the human mind; the results are subjected to statistical analysis because the ESP effects, if they exist, have to do with whether the number of correct guesses is significantly more than would be expected by chance. Thus ESP is studied by calculating probability, whether an ESP event is unlikely enough to point to a real effect.
Besides probability, another feature underlying ESP as it is usually defined involves sensations or feelings processed by the mind of an observer. The current scientific view holds that what we call the mind is simply the electrochemical activity of the brain – it is not magically different just because it manifests intelligent life. So we need to ask, what is it about the brain that is different from almost anything else we encounter?
The most obvious answer is its complexity: the human brain contains a staggeringly large number of nerve cells, roughly 25 billion. The thoughts and memories we experience appear to be encoded in the synaptic connections between neurons, and perhaps also in brain proteins. Either way, measurements show that specific memories and thought sequences are accompanied by specific patterns of electrical activity in the brain, which correspond to ions and molecules occupying specific positions within the brain. (For more about memory and the ways in which it can trick us, see this excellent article by John Hawthorne.)
A researcher testing a person for ESP might ask him to try to make a tossed coin turn up “heads,” and then measure how often he succeeds. If the test subject is trying for a heads-up outcome, he is thinking about or visualizing that outcome. If in fact the coin comes up heads, he will experience the same situation he was thinking about. If there is a tendency for random events to turn out so as to duplicate a previous pattern, the repeated brain patterns might provide a mechanism for ESP effects, in this case psychokinesis.
The reasoning above leads us to the Similarity Postulate:
Every event tends to produce spatial patterns of matter that are similar to the spatial patterns of matter existing at the time of the event.
Note that this postulate gives us a mechanism for producing physical effects by mental effort. It’s not necessary to assume a mysterious force or brain wave beaming out of our skulls to nudge the flipping coin: all that has to happen is that the probability of a random process needs to be slightly biased toward repeating an existing pattern. In fact, it’s not even necessary for the coin toss itself to be disturbed. If the test subject thinks that the coin comes up heads, he will have the “heads-up” brain pattern; so the Postulate would be satisfied if the person being tested simply made a mistake of observation.
I’m not the only person to note that repeated patterns could provide a mechanism for ESP. Some contemporary examples are Morphic Resonance proposed by Rupurt Sheldrake, Duplication Theory of Nick Greaves and “neuronal spatiotemporal patterns” described by Jon Taylor. However, my approach is somewhat different: as a physicist I am biased toward supplying the math to convert the Postulate into a full theory, capable of making quantitative predictions.
The Mathematics of Similarity
At this point, the theory descends into mathematics, and that reaches beyond the scope of this blog. The math is summarized in my published article A Physical Theory of PSI based on Similarity, which was published in the journal Psychoenergetic Systems in 1981. You can read the entire article HERE, by permission of the Taylor & Francis Group, which acquired Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, the journal’s owner, in 2001.
Here’s what’s in the published paper:
– A description of how the similarity of two arrangements of matter can be computed mathematically;
– Discussion of a coin-tossing experiment, which is then generalized to describe any test measuring ESP effects;
– How and when an experiment can be considered isolated from outside influence;
– A prediction that ESP success will rapidly decline with further testing, if early success causes the experimenter and the test subject to run more and more tests;
– “Inertia of Beliefs”: The outcome of ESP experiments will tend not only to repeat the patterns set up within the experiment, but also the patterns existing in the world around; thus positive ESP results will descend to the level of chance before they become convincing enough to change the belief patterns of skeptical observers;
– Similarity’s relationship to previously published theoretical work.
The article also summarizes conditions that the theory predicts should be conducive to ESP effects:
– Choose a psi process whose probability is not too small (e.g. card guessing rather than winning a large lottery)
– Exclude unsympathetic observers
– Don’t attempt a definitive, convincing demonstration that might significantly change people’s belief patterns
– The test subject should visualize the desired outcome, ideally using imagery that is complex, vivid and unique
– Fully experience and recall successes; but don’t spend time thinking about past failures
– Don’t let a successful ESP outcome change your thoughts or actions.
Science Speculation. The discussion above is Science Fact, not because it claims that Similarity is true, but because it discusses a specific theory for how ESP could be compatible with known science.
However, there is also room for Science Speculation, along these lines: If Similarity really describes the way the world operates, how can we make use of it? That is a matter of translating the guidelines of the research lab into practical tips for everyday life, as follows:
– Positive Thinking. Things are more likely to turn out in your favor if you have a positive attitude, that is, if you believe that good things will happen.
– Imagery. An important part of positive thinking is imagining things as you want them to be. The richer and more creative your imagery, the more likely it is to help you.
– “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” You should not sit back and expect that a little brainwork will cause a fortune to drop from the sky. Instead, exert your best efforts to make things go well for you, to make a good outcome more likely. Then ESP doesn’t have to work so hard to push you over the edge into success country.
– Shun Jinxes. As much as possible, avoid people with negative attitudes, predictors of gloom and doom. If ESP reinforces their bad expectations, it may do so by causing bad things to happen to you, so the negative person can say or think, “I told you so.” In other words, another person’s negative ESP may overwhelm your positive ESP!
– Be Realistic. ESP, when it works, does not cause impossible things to happen; all it does is make the possible a little more possible. Having realistic expectations makes it more likely that you will gain your heart’s desire.
You probably noticed that these tips are consistent with a lot of advice from life coaches and New Age thinkers. However, they are not obtained from fuzzy philosophy, wishful thinking or magical prescription: they are direct implications of the Similarity theory. The theory may or may not be correct, but it does offer practical guidance.
Many readers of this blog have also read one or more of my techno-thriller mysteries: Death By Probability, Death By Tech and Death By Arbitrage or Live Low Die High. In those novels, Similarity appears as a fringe science theory (described as “crackpot” by the A.I. character Al), invented by the lead character Evan Olsson. The novels are accurate insofar as Similarity appears: it seems to play a role in events, but often the outcome of those events can be predicted in other ways. For example, although Similarity predicts “Inertia of Beliefs,” there are many other reasons why people tend to cling to beliefs, once they have been acquired.
Similarity deserves its role in fiction as well as in the world of published research, because it’s a theory that cannot be easily proved or disproved. Similarity may eventually turn out to be fiction and be supplanted by something better; however, so long as it may in fact be true, it stands as science, an honest attempt to understand and predict the world around us.
Have you used “positive thinking” (à la Similarity) to improve your chance for success? Did it work for you?
Image Credit: “Roulette” from The Print Shop 2 Collection. Not for download or reuse.