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ESP: Heresy or Scientific Breakthrough?

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All of us have said it: "I had a feeling that would happen." Some of us call it intuition, Oprah calls it "God whispering," and bestselling author and self-defense expert Gavin de Becker calls it gut instinct. But when a respected psychology professor presents a scientific paper attempting to prove that we somehow know what is going to happen before it does, it releases a hellfire of outrage and accusations of insanity.

Cornell professor emeritus Daryl Bem's recent paper, "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect," will be published in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper, which consists of nine experiments with more than 1,000 participants and is made up of 56 pages of statistical evaluation, concludes, "The presentiment studies provide evidence that our physiology can anticipate unpredictable erotic or negative stimuli before they occur."

Or, in plain English, there is scientific evidence that we have the ability to anticipate bad things -- and, he discovered, sexual stimuli -- even before they happen.

When The New York Times wrote an article about Bem's paper, professors, authors and other doubters flocked to the Times' Room for Debate section. Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University, Bloomington, took on the paper's thesis, saying:

There has to be a common sense cut off for craziness and when that threshold is exceeded, then the criteria for publication should get far, far more stringent. Otherwise, the floodgates will be open to crackpots of all stripes -- and opening the floodgates to the frequent publication of crackpot ideas in top-notch journals would, in its own different way, spell the end of science as we know it.

Is this really the end of science as we know it, or could it be the beginning of the scientific attempt to prove a phenomenon that is beyond our perception of reality?

In his paper, Bem writes about the similarities between what he terms psi (ESP) and quantum physics:

[T]he conundrum that makes psi phenomena anomalous in the first place: their presumed incompatibility with our current conceptual model of physical reality. Those who follow contemporary developments in modern physics, however, will be aware that several features of quantum phenomena are themselves incompatible with our everyday conception of physical reality.

In physics, the rules for how large things work (general relativity) and for how small things work (quantum mechanics) are very different. It's a conundrum that stumped even Einstein. Quantum mechanics, which defies general intuition, much like theories of precognition or ESP, flies in the face of the more intuitive theory of relativity. But does that make it wrong?

One bestselling author and professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, Brian Greene, has focused his work on solving the scientific mystery inherent in the difference between the two theories. In his second book, "The Fabric of the Cosmos," he writes, "The overreaching lesson that has emerged from scientific inquiry over the last century is that human experience is often a misleading guide to the true nature of reality."

Could it be that there are possibilities for a reality beyond our experience? Quantum theory has proven just that in the physical realm.

Those attacking Bem's paper argue that "it's craziness, pure craziness." And their perception is very real to them, but, like all of us, they're limited by their perception.

Our reality is built upon our perceptions and are thus always subjective. Renowned psychologist and author Robert Ornstein states in his book "MindReal: How the Mind Creates Its Own Virtual Reality" that "one trillionth of reality makes it to consciousness... we are immersed in a tiny chamber of self-delusion." He also states that "we need to teach people not only to get information into their minds, but also to change the way they think."

It has been proven throughout history that our perception of things is not always scientifically correct -- think about when Galileo championed the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. It was viewed as heresy.

I would like to think that Galileo would agree with Ornstein's assertion that we ought to try to move beyond the limitations of the mind and attempt to expand our consciousness to accept that there might just be things beyond our perception, but that that doesn't make them crazy or wrong. I know I do.

Bem cleverly ends his paper with a section titled "On Believing Impossible Things," in which he quotes the White Queen from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass," discussing believing in impossible things with Alice: "I daresay you haven't had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Bem's main point at the end of the article is to get his peers in academic psychology to "raise their posterior probabilities of believing at least one anomalous thing before breakfast." I think we all should follow that advice.

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