Could telepathy one day be explained by modern physics?

This is a transcript of a discussion on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, October 2nd. 2001, with Sue MacGregor (presenter), Brian Josephson and Nicholas Humphrey, and a voice recording of James Randi. The original audio broadcast is also available (2MB mp3 audio file).

See also comments on some of the issues, also on the theoretical aspect.

Sue MacGregor: A new set of Royal Mail stamps released today to celebrate the Nobel prizes has caused a stir in the scientific community because of claims made in a booklet accompanying the stamps that telepathy, and other paranormal activity, will one day be explained by modern physics. The claim is made in the booklet by Professor Brian Josephson, who is professor of physics at Cambridge University, winner of the Nobel prize for physics himself; we'll hear from him in a moment. James Randi runs a foundation in the United States which was established to look at the credibility of claims of paranormal activity: it offers a million dollar prize to anyone who can prove its existence, and Randi challenges the claim made by Professor Josephson:

James Randi (recording):

"There is no firm evidence for the existence of telepathy, ESP or whatever we wish to call it, and I think it is the refuge of scoundrels in many aspects for them to turn to something like quantum physics, which uses a totally different language from the regular English that we are accustomed to using from day to day, to merely say, oh that's where the answer lies, because that's all very fuzzy anyway. No it's not very fuzzy, and I think that his opinion will be differed with by the scientific body in general ..."

Sue MacGregor: James Randi. Well, earlier I spoke to Professor Josephson himself, also to Professor Nicholas Humphrey of the London School of Economics, and I asked Professor Josephson first if, as the Royal Mail booklet suggests, he really thinks quantum physics can explain the paranormal?

Brian Josephson: It's a question of professional judgement. I can sort of see the outlines of how it might be done.

Sue MacGregor: Can you explain to us?

Brian Josephson: It relies to some extent on the thinking over the years from Professor Henry Stapp of the University of California. He has given some pretty strong arguments that present science doesn't take the mind properly into account. He's indicated where mind might fit in, and roughly how it works. And that's the kind of idea which I hope can be developed into something that will satisfy the scientists.

Sue MacGregor: I mean you are saying, to put it simply, that the mind is powerful enough to operate on the sort of level that physics could explain?

Brian Josephson: Stapp is actually deriving his ideas from a very old and accepted result that the observer has to be taken into account when you are dealing with nature on a quantum-mechanical scale. So he has looked rather deeply at the implications of that result, so it's not a crazy idea, it's absolutely standard physics.

Sue MacGregor: Professor Nicholas Humphrey, a crazy idea?

Nicholas Humphrey: Well, I think the idea that quantum physics explains the paranormal is an unnecessary idea, because there's nothing to explain. I mean, the issue really is whether there is any evidence for telepathy, or for psychokinesis or for any of the other phenomena which Brian thinks requires these extraordinary explanations. I don't think for a moment that Brian Josephson is a scoundrel, that is rather absurd language and Randi should keep it to himself, but I think that Brian Josephson's attempt to apply a very sophisticated theory in a rather novel and unnecessary way is irrelevant because we haven't got any phenomena to explain. If Brian Josephson could produce the goods by showing that there is evidence for telepathy or evidence for psychokinesis or evidence for metal bending or anything else, then we have a problem, but we haven't got any evidence.

Sue MacGregor: Well, with metal bending and Uri Geller and all that, I suppose people would say that the evidence is in the eyes of the observer, that the spoons did bend.

Nicholas Humphrey: How many times have you been to a conjuring show and seen things happen before your eyes which you can't explain, but which you don't think require a revision of the laws of the physics in order to account for them -- all that's needed to account for them is to expose the arts of the conjurer, as was of course the case with Uri Geller. James Randi himself is a conjurer, he's an expert on fooling people, and that's why I think he believes that Josephson and other well-meaning physicists are being fooled if they believe in telepathy.

Sue MacGregor: Professor Josephson, you're being fooled; there's no evidence that would satisfy a scientist?

Brian Josephson: Let me make the point, that there is actually a difference between a conjuring show and a scientific experiment. Now if James Randi is so certain that it can all be done by conjuring, I think the challenge is now up to him, to go along to a scientific laboratory where this is being investigated and get perfect results in telepathy, instead of about 20% better than you'd expect by chance.

Sue MacGregor: But isn't it up to you to provide the evidence that would convince people like Professor Humphrey?

Brian Josephson: Well, Professor Humphrey is somebody who is very difficult to convince, I'm afraid; I'm not up to that task.

Sue MacGregor: So you wouldn't offer to take part in any sort of experiment that he might watch?

Brian Josephson: Well ... I wouldn't rule it out. Now a few years ago he wrote a book ... I looked at the book very carefully and I believe I disposed of all the arguments; I haven't heard any comeback from him.

Sue MacGregor: Well there you are, Professor Humphrey ...

Nicholas Humphrey: This isn't the time to review my book! -- we're reviewing Brian Josephson's statements in relation to the Royal Mail postage stamps. Let's go with what he's actually said on this programme, which is that he thinks that he can bring in arguments about the observer effects in quantum physics to explain telepathy. Well, let's even imagine that therewas evidence for telepathy. Nobody in the world of microphysics actually believes that the observer effect as he describes it does require a conscious mind in order to get the collapse of the quantum wave function, which is what he is referring to, when suddenly something which was undecided becomes decided as a result of interaction with an observer -- you have to have some measurement being made, but the measurement doesn't require a conscious observer, it could be a measurement made by a robot, it could be a measurement made by a cat for that matter, there doesn't have to be a conscious mind involved ...

Sue MacGregor: Well, there, sadly, we must leave the argument. Gentlemen, Professor Josephson, Professor Humphrey, thank you both very much.

some comments on the above: the reason for my bringing up Professor Humphrey's book (see review) is, quite simply, that his book represents his case against the paranormal. If the arguments in the book are faulty (and, so far, no-one has refuted any aspect of the case I made in my review), then the case for ignoring the experimental evidence (such as that of the US government's investigation of the paranormal) goes as well. Randi's assertion 'there is no firm evidence for the paranormal' also relies on not looking in detail at the evidence that is available, such as that quoted above.

At the end of the interview, Nicholas Humphrey appeared to be trying to argue that since conscious minds and measurements by a robot both cause wave function collapse, if one of them can do telepathy then so can the other; hence it would be wrong to think that human beings can do telepathy unless robots can also (I apologise if this was not the argument intended; time ran out at this point so one can only guess where the argument was going). But if this was the argument intended then it is clearly fallacious; collapse by human beings might be an especially organised process that does not occur in systems with a more limited level of mentality.

Regrettably, time does not permit detailed discussion of the possible link I am envisaging might be possible between quantum theory and the paranormal. However, the following links may be of interest in clarifying what was said in the interview and in the controversal booklet:

Further, a significant current development that is of relevance is the revived interest in the semiotic concepts of the philosopher C S Peirce. It is now being realised that Peirce's theories as to the role and functioning of signs is relevant to various areas of science, some of them having clear bearing on the paranormal.

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