Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Exploring the Burden of Proof in Psychic Predictions

I recently had a conversation with an old friend of mine about psychic predictions.   Through the course of our discussion, I heard that old familiar statement, that science and spirituality are "separate domains," and that one is rooted in understanding and the other in logic, each containing "two different methods of knowing."  Despite this argument being an obvious false dichotomy (the fallacy that an argument "logically" boils down to a simple either/or dichotomy), I believe that people often make this mistake for two simple reasons; 1) we've heard countless religious leaders state something to this effect (likely in an effort, conscious or not, to protect their underlying supernatural premise) and, 2) a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic tenets of scientific understanding. 

It is simply untrue that science and spirituality are separate domains and/or diametrically opposed to one another (science vs. dogmatic religion on the other hand, is something completely different).  Neuroscientist Sam Harris for example, is doing a great deal of really excellent work in regards to consciousness and how the act of meditation affects the physical, neuronal structures of the brain.  He recently wrote a book called “The Moral Landscape” in which he discusses the notion, "that which brings the greatest amount of happiness to the largest amount of people" as the true definition of morality, and how if morality can be defined in such a manner, it can therefore be measured within a scientific domain.  Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often states that without understanding we cannot have compassion - an extremely logical statement that should in no way imply that understanding is mutually exclusive to spirituality alone.  Far from it.

Science simply stated, IS about understanding, especially the understanding of complex patterns and/or phenomena.  Is such understanding not what Buddhist psychology is also fundamentally designed to explore?  Are both neuropsychology and Buddhist psychology not both concerned with the general study of human consciousness?  Apart from the the obvious, if not over-simplified fact that each domain tend to speak to opposite hemispheres of the brain, I do not see them as different or opposing one another.  Just as science has suggested that optimal human functioning depends upon reliance and utilization of both hemispheres (the left/logical half and the right/experiential half) the Dali Lama has suggested recently that one must have deep understanding of both western and eastern psychology to fully understand and appreciate the human condition. 

The Buddha himself reportedly never discussed gods, heaven or the supernatural because he saw them merely as “mental distractions” from being fully present and gaining a deeper awareness (i.e.: they’re not fundamental or necessary for understanding and compassion).  I read Jack Kornfield’s “Path with Heart” years before I learned to conduct cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in my therapeutic practice.  One might be surprised to learn that the Buddhist techniques described in the book directly parallel the treatment methods of modern CBT.  While such therapeutic cognitive-behavioral techniques are relatively new, developed independently over the last 3 or 4 decades, similar Buddhist methods essentially predate modern psychology by roughly 2,500 years.  Fascinatingly enough, these “truths” were arrived at completely independently of each other in what's known as "convergent evolution (i.e.: the independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineages).  Often the best approach to a problem comes forth this way, in this case, a natural manifestation of focusing on awareness and consciousness and the inevitably pursuit of happiness.  Regardless of whether your “goal”  (for lack of a better word) is enlightenment or self-actualization, the basic methods for achieving deeper understanding remain the same. 

To shed more light on the power of human consciousness and our species susceptibility to  illusion and ignorance, let’s continue with the general theme of convergent evolution.  To the untrained eye one might assume that a bat and a bird both share a immediate common ancestor.  They don't.  Though they have many similarities in both wing and body structure, evolutionary science has shown us that both species evolved their individual anatomies and ability to fly completely separate of one another, both to meet the independent needs of their particular species in their respective divergent environments.  The same goes for insect and pterosaur wings or the evolution of eyesight (which itself has developed independently somewhere between 40-65 times in the course of evolution).  To the untrained eye (no pun intended), we might naturally assume there was a direct connection between the two when there actually is none (other than divergent natural selection and a much more ancient common ancestor), despite the “superficial” similarities in the body structure of both creatures.  As with Buddhist psychology and cognitive-behavioral psychology, the best answer to solving the problem (in this case, the transcending of human suffering) inevitably "presented itself."  The same basic paradigm applies to bats and birds.  Without scientific understanding, we would never know this, no matter how “open” we chose to be in our consciousness.  If we just accepted that these two species “evolved together” because in our gut it “felt right” (because they share similar body structures), we would be severely limiting our understanding of the world.  

Science is meant to open our eyes to the wonder of the world and the quality of “openness” is actually a fundamental mandate of any good (i.e.: reliable) science.  The connection that appears in the anatomy of bat and birds is nothing more than an illusionary connection created by consciousness that is wired to find meaning in a chaotic world.  Our brains have evolved to “create” such connections quickly, which has helped our species adapt and survive through multiple generations.  What might be great for basic survival however, provides a great deal disservice to fundamental truth, as much of the meaning we give to phenomenon is just plan wrong.  It might be easy for example (and quite logical I might add), to make a leap and assume that convergent evolution of either essential wisdom or species ability to fly has been guided by a divine hand, but again, this may be nothing more than our consciousness not fully understanding reality and attempting to make phenomenon meaningful within the contexts of a particular worldview.  Now I'm not arguing the fact that this is no god in the universe, as that subject deserves a separate discussion in and of itself.   I am asserting what Stephen Hawking has so eloquently wrote about in The Grand Design, that everything in the universe that has occurred can be naturally explained by science without divine intervention: 

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, whey we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke Got to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going." - Stephen Hawking

As a multitude of studies have shown, humanities ability to observe the whole picture and/or make computations of complex statistics and probability in our heads is still stuck in the stone age, as we continue to give importance to what is most likely nothing more than powerful, emotionally satisfying (and therefore motivating) coincidence.  Though entirely random (and/or deviously manipulated to appeal to ones emotional reasoning), such stimuli has been positively reinforced and therefore appears extremely meaningful to the person making the (mostly erroneous) connections.

I see a very clear parallel here in the way in which some people gravitate towards supernatural and/or psychic explanations.  We might feel it in every fiber of our soul that X is true, but without deeper exploration, we remain ignorant in our small minds, incapable of seeing the bigger evolutionary picture.  We become sure of ourselves and our perceptions, despite the vast amount of published research which suggests that our perceptions are highly flawed.  Scientists continually strive to replicate studies to get ever closer to the truth, while science as a whole adjusts its views based on these new observations.  It would be a mistake to believe that science and spirituality are separate, or that there is a general close-mindedness toward psychic phenomenon within the scientific community.  Science isn’t closed off to these explanations.  To the contrary, there has actually been a quite a large amount of published research devoted to the subject. 

Consciousness has been wired over a vast expanse of time to have us believe in a separate sense of self, which has been extremely adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, when ancient spiritual traditions and modern science suggest that we are all actually much more deeply interconnected that we could ever imagine.  Such a fact does not imply however, that supernatural phenomenon, such as the ability to see into the future or into other people's minds, exist, or is suggestive of a supernatural explanation.  As it stands today, there is absolutely no empirically validated evidence (other than extremely fallible anecdotal evidence) to support the claims of psychic abilities.  With this fact in mind, is it not alternatively possible that those who believe in such phenomenon are merely experiencing the illusion of ego, created by consciousness, driven to make sense of the world (and ignorant of the overwhelming influence of coincidence and probability), and merely "conceptualizing" a psychic experience?  Within the scope of current evidence, this seems to be a much more logical conclusion.    

Simply stated, there are things that we can't understand (and that it’s pure hubris to assume that we do), and the most adaptive stance is to remain open to experience, rather than remaining rigidly closed off.  Aren't we merely limiting our awareness to a simple dualistic conceptualization when we put our uncertainty into a distinct category, such as describing phenomena in terms of "psychic experience?"  Have we not seen in our lifetime, the potential of rigid mental conceptualizations (such as modern “interpretations” of the bible) serving the purpose of shutting down human empathy?  Is there not a fundamental difference between being naively open to the world vs. maintaining an educated AND open awareness of life in all its complexities?

Science has shown humanity the errors of perception and emotional reasoning just as Buddhist psychology has shown us that we limit our experience by putting labels on and conceptualizing phenomenon.  Is it not arrogant to assume we KNOW (for a fact) exactly what is occurring?   Is it not possible that labeling something a "psychic experience" merely biases our perception to expect psychic experiences and thus closes oneself off to other alternatives?  I think the real trap is believing you know when the fact of the matter is that you merely THINK you know something based on (possibly) flawed logic and emotional reasoning – something I find to be inevitably dangerous to society due to the fact that it leaves us open to blind credulity and the influence others who may not have our best interests at heart. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not denying psychic experiences are possible, though it seems highly unlikely to me.  I'm simply denying the fact that there is any reasonable evidence to support the existence of such phenomena and am simply holding out for more compelling evidence before I can definitively say either way.  Don’t be fooled, despite what questionable articles one might read, ignorant of the full body of scientific evidence and the basic flaws of many of the study designs which are often cited might say (convincingly, I might add), there is no reputable evidence for such phenomena within the scientific community. 

From the dawn of consciousness, humanity has felt the need for certainty in an uncertain world.  We obviously gain a great “sense” of control in a random and chaotic universe.  Religion and astrology are two such efforts.  Science has shown the extreme power of coincidence in the influence of the mind that craves certainty in an effort to make sense of the world (calling something a "psychic experience" for example). 

In the infamous words of Carl Sagan, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Otherwise, isn’t it just the ego making barriers to direct experience, by labeling and conceptualizing said experience and viewing all future experience through that point of view?  Personally, I find it best to stick with the "not knowing" of a beginners mind.  It's simply hubris to assume we know all answers when we don't have all the evidence.