Precognition and Free Will
See below an excerpt from my recently published interview with Terje Simonsen, author of
A Short History of (Nearly) Everything Paranormal. Note in particular the penultimate paragraph where Simonsen goes a long way to reconciling precognition and free will.
Complete interview can be read on the Watkins Mind Body Spirit website here. (Print version forthcoming.) Thank you so much to Terje Simonsen and the wonderful staff at Watkins!
T: [ . . .] Now about precognition: some quite exciting research has been done by Dean Radin, who probably is the most famous parapsychologist today. He tested if the brain would be able to detect upcoming events in the following manner: Test-persons would be wired to an apparatus measuring skin-conductivity, i.e. the skin’s resistance to electricity, which changes according to a person’s levels of stress. Radin’s computer-screen would then present, to the test-persons, different pictures that were pleasant, scary or neutral. And, stunningly enough, before a picture was shown on the screen, the body’s reaction to it would be measurable! E.g. the person would typically show an increased level of stress 3-5 seconds before a scary picture was shown. Not always, but a significant number of times. Radin has run this experiment with, among others, the Nobel prize winning chemist Kary Mullis, who became convinced the effect was real, and has said: “I could see about three seconds into the future. It’s spooky (…) There’s something funny about time that we don’t understand because you shouldn’t be able to do that.” C: This strange effect could perhaps be an experience of the time-symmetry, or non-temporality, that you mentioned above… I have mixed feelings about time-symmetry, which seems deterministic.
T: I think that perhaps could be the case, yes, but you know, these things are really difficult to understand. But at least the effect, precognition, seems to be very real, and points to the need to reformulate our understanding of both Time and Consciousness, I think. Also the highly respected psychology professor Daryl Bem of Cornell University has conducted experiments on precognition. In one of them, a great number of students would watch a computer-screen with a couple of ‘doors’; behind one door the computer would present erotic imagery, whereas behind the other door it would present a neutral image. The task of the students was then, as one would suspect, to detect the erotic activity . . .which the students in fact managed to do a statistically significant number of times! This was but one of 9 different experiments Bem conducted to see if humans really have the ability to perceive the future. He published an article about his experiments called “Feeling the Future,” printed in March 2011, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, one of the most respected psychology journals in the world, which caused much brawl among skeptics and more conservative souls. C: The role of affect—the emotions. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective one might argue. T: Of course, one might perhaps feel that perceiving an event just a few seconds before it happens is not all that exciting compared to, say, prophesying things years ahead! But long-time precognition is, understandably enough, rather impractical to run experiments with. And if it really is possible to perceive something before it actually happens, even just seconds before, this means the strictures and confinements of linear time are not absolute but rather are up for review! Which indeed opens new horizons, because if you are able to see/perceive something 3 seconds before it happens, why, in principle, not 3 hours, 3 weeks or 3 years?
C: Yes, I’ve thought sometimes there may be a lag in perception, in these cases, though perhaps it amounts to the same thing.
T: Precognition, ‘seeing’ the future before it, from a common-sense perspective, happens, is obviously a tricky thing, both in a philosophical and in a practical sense. To just state the most obvious problem: if it is possible to see the future—which could seem to imply that the future is somehow already there, being able to be perceived—what then about our precious free will? If things ‘seen’, say in a precognitive dream, are bound to happen anyway, whether we would have it or not, aren’t we then somehow reduced to biological robots without any real agency? This is a view of ourselves which could be correct, but which I think most of us still would not be fully comfortable with: The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once, with a glaring and funny paradox, stated: ‘We must believe in free will—we have no choice!’
But perhaps precognition—if we regard the phenomenon to be real, and in my book I present several stunning cases which support that this indeed could be the case—is not to be understood as perception of a fixed future, but rather as a glimpse of a hitherto undetected freedom? A bit like getting to look at a track-map at the railroad-station, which shows that track A leads to Scotland whereas track B leads to Wales—but still leaves me fully free to choose which train to get on? If so, precognition would not at all destroy our agency, rather it could enhance our possibility to make more informed, freer, and thereby also better, choices. The philosophical physician Larry Dossey has written a couple of books giving suggestions on how to use precognition to better navigate everyday life.
As I said, this is obviously a difficult issue; Dean Radin, the great parapsychologist, once commented wittily that one should not ponder precognition more than 10 minutes at a time, since “it hurts your brain”. Personally, I think that at the end of the day there might be an unresolved, and even unresolvable, issue here, which may ultimately stem from the limited capacity of Words to grasp and represent Reality—the menu will never be the meal, the map will never be the terrain. So perhaps Wisdom is to live with this paradox, accept the Mystery, listening carefully to our intuition, doing what feels right, without knowing, and without needing to know, to which extent our choices might be part of a fixed or fully free future.