Paranormal Communication and Instinct: An Asynchronous Chat with Terje Simonsen
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
In A Short History of (Nearly) Everything Paranormal Terje Simonsen invites us to engage in a thought experiment—to take seriously his concept of paranormal phenomena as a “Mental Internet.” Below is an excerpt from the book, and below that a response from Paracultures.
‘The Mental Internet’
Based on this idea, we launch a quite simple model, called the ‘Mental Internet.’ The basic metaphor here is that somewhat in the way our computers are linked together via the internet, the ‘consciousnesses’ of all humans, and perhaps all living beings, are linked together via some sort of Mental Internet. Consciousness, like the internet, is—on some level—something that we are all doing together; it is networking. And telepathy is the communication that drives this network. I am of course aware that such a model is a gross simplification. But as the great statistician George E.P. Box once put it: ‘Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful!’
Early psychic researchers found wireless telegraph and radio to be helpful metaphors when trying to grasp how telepathy could be possible, as these technologies demonstrated that information could be transmitted instantly across vast distances. If a crude apparatus could perform such a miraculous feat then our highly advanced minds might also be able to accomplish such operations in ways yet to be discovered. Today, however, the internet will probably make for an even better analogy. There are two reasons for this: The internet is intrinsically a web, thus collective, connective and more reciprocal than the radio. (A friend of mine related that when he was a small boy, he found it utterly frustrating that the man in the radio was speaking all the time and never showed the faintest interest in listening!) And also, the internet is not only a medium for the transmission of information but also for storing.
Some people seem to be quite allergic to such models, saying: ‘We know how radio and the internet works, but telepathy—if real—must surely be a totally different matter, thus these models are useless.’ With this I don’t agree; on the contrary, I feel such simple models may help to stretch the imagination, making it a little more flexible, perhaps opening us up to new possibilities. So once more in the wise words of George E.P. Box: ‘Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful!’
I therefore invite the reader to engage in a little thought experiment throughout the book: namely that an Internet Model of consciousness may have some relevance. Galileo once invited the Inquisition to look through his telescope in order to see what he himself had seen. But, as we know, the inquisitors were not very keen on having their horizons expanded and instead muttered murkily of ‘the work of the Devil.’ However, I take it for granted that the reader has a radically more open attitude than those darkened souls, and I am therefore confident that my invitation will be well received. (32 - 33)
The following is my version of the Internet Model thought experiment.
By Christine Skolnik
As a former rhetoric professor, I see the Internet as an extension of human communication technologies (more so than computing, say, or data storage). A rhetoric of science metaphor for the Internet would be the rise of the scientific journal in the nineteenth century. Prior to the circulation of scientific journals, gentlemen scientists worked largely in isolation; after the rise of the scientific journal, scientists were able to virtually collaborate. (This was, not incidently, facilitated by the fact that university-educated scientists were able to read various languages.) Thus, William James (fluent in five languages), regularly cited contemporaneous German experimental psychology in The Principles of Psychology.
The idea of the Internet as an expression of a conscious mental internet is not really a stretch. While the population at large may imagine their minds are contained within their brains, the idea of a distributed mind (or distributed cognition) is a fairly common trope in scientific and critical theoretical circles. (At this very moment, I am connecting your mind with ideas I have gleaned from a variety of other minds.) So, the concept of a networked mind is both a defensible and fairly easily imaginable scheme.
Another approach to the analogy of the Internet and the conscious mind would be to argue that since the computer and the Internet were created by human minds, they necessarily bear an affinity to the mind and its social/communicative functions. This argument is commonplace.
Simonsen, however, challenges us to link the Internet with paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precogntion rather than everyday human communication. This, as Simonsen notes, is a potential stumbling block for most academics and laypersons. We understand how language technology is nested in Internet communication, but how can we understand the “mechanisms” of paranormal phenomena, say, telepathy as analogous to the mechanisms of the Internet? What, other than the ancient and yet perennially elusive notion of “consciousness” offers any basis for an explanatory hypothesis?
Simonsen’s text provides various answers, but sometimes indirectly. An excerpt from the book published on a previous Paracultures post describes telepathic communication among indigenous peoples and suggests that telepathic communication preceded the spoken word (136 - 138). If telepathic communication preceded the spoken word and writing systems, then perhaps it is also in some way nested in conventional language. If this is the case, then telepathy may also be nested in the Internet. But how does it work?
Here I recruit James’s colleague and correspondent Henri Bergson. Bergson asserted that the intellect blocks human beings from instinct, creativity, and mystical/paranormal experience. However, he also suggested that a “fringe” of instinct remains intact around the intellect, and this is the source of true creativity and transcendent, mystical experience (Creative Evolution).
It seems self-evident that the Internet is built on the foundation of human language—writing, speech, and other symbol systems like the visual arts. In other words, speech and writing are nested in the Internet, and are conditions of the possibility of Internet communication. By analogy, paranormal communication may be nested in language. So, following Simonsen’s idea that telepathy preceded language and Bergson’s idea that a fringe of instinct remains intact in the intellect, the technology of the paranormal may be instinct.
At this point I refer readers to Simonsen’s section on animals, in his discussion of Rupert Sheldrake (431 - 442). Instinct in non-human animals is settled science (in a sense). We can’t explain it, but we readily acknowledge that it exists. We ascribe to animals, superpowers that we deny exist in humans. How do migratory birds navigate halfway across the globe? We don’t know how, but we know that they do, and we are working on explanatory hypotheses. Among the interesting examples of animal superpowers discussed in Simonsen’s book are the synchronous coordination of birds flying in flocks and dogs who know when their humans are coming home, even if the humans appear at arbitrary intervals. How do they know? Instinct perhaps.
So, I’m positing instinct, a known scientific “quantity” in lieu of the Gordian knot of consciousness. However, I’d also like to suggest that non-human instinct is not a lower or more “basic” faculty than human consciousness. Evidence from human cultural history suggests that various types of communication technologies are in a trade-off relationship. Just as Internet literacy (en masse) has compromised reading and writing skills, and writing compromised speech communication skills and the arts of memory, so too, human language and other early technologies may have compromised paranormal communication ability.
Ancient, old-world, and new-age mysticisms generally express the desire of human beings to transcend their humanity and become gods. Shamanic cultures, conversely, become animal. Hmm.