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Philosophy & the Paranormal

Why You Can’t Read My Mind

We had no idea that Paul MacDonald intended to write this article.

Much attention is given in the populist media to explaining the unexplained; every month new books, magazines, and websites devoted to the paranormal make their appearance. In an attempt to counter-balance the prevalent climate of credulity,The Skeptical Inquirer has offered cogent and sober analyses of claims made about alien abductions, after-death communication, Biblical Creationism, and other peculiar pseudo-scientific theories. However, it is rather unusual for paranormal claims to be subjected to explicitly philosophical scrutiny, perhaps partly because it is more common to think that reported incidents are simply highly unlikely, implausible or garbled. But some claims made about some types of paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts, psycho-kinesis, and telepathy are more than just improbable: they are basically confused at the conceptual level. At the same time that cognitive scientists articulate more and more complex materialist theories of the mind, reducing the mental domain to the operations of neuro-chemical computations, paranormalists postulate an immaterial mind with significant occult powers. This article is an attempt to sort out some of the serious conceptual problems involved with claims made about the paranormal phenomenon of telepathy.

What is Telepathy?

The word `telepathy' (from the root pathos) seems to convey the sense of remote-feeling, not remote-thinking; `telepathy' is thus closely related to `sympathy' and `empathy'. Now, on one hand, remote-feeling or feeling-at-a-distance is not such a strange or para-normal notion that one needs special guidance to appreciate its meaning. Let us suppose that you are in a crowded café, chatting with friends and watching the action. You happen to notice the rapid and abrupt movement the waiters make through the swing door into the kitchen. You think that it’s remarkable that there aren’t more collisions near this unpredictable portal. One of the diners bends over to pick up something in front of the swing door at the very moment it bursts open, striking the diner on the head with an audible thump. You wince, as do the other diners who witness this incident, and turn to your friends and say that you felt that. This is a perfectly intelligible statement and requires no paranormal explanation about feeling-at-a-distance, but paranormalists assert something more mysterious about the overcoming of psychic distance in some not-so-normal experiences.

It may help to draw some distinctions between various sorts of feeling (or affective) experiences with respect to one's physical or mental proximity. In a sym-pathetic experience (`feeling-with'), your intimate knowledge of another person's situation allows you to feel how you imagine you would feel if you had the other's problems or blessings. In an em-pathetic (`feeling-within') experience, your intimate knowledge of another person's feeling-reactions allows you to imagine that you are in the other person's situation, having the same problems or blessings. In the tele-pathic situation, you are able to experience pain or pleasure on behalf of another person, just as if you were in the other's situation. Of course, there are profound differences between the feeling a person whose head has been banged might have, and the remote feelings you have in witnessing this head banging; he might need a pain-killer, but you do not. The pain occurs in his head as a result of the door banging his head, whereas it is as if the pain occurred in your head as a result of seeing his head banged.

So perhaps the really salient feature of alleged incidents of telepathy is something which might better be called tele-cognition, i.e. remote thinking. From numerous science-fiction films we are all familiar with the idea that tele-cognition might be something like an inner, private voice (which the audience hears), but which the `telepath' only thinks and doesn't speak out loud. In Star Trek: The Next Generation no one else hears this inner voice except another telepath. But right away there's a serious problem with this illustration of so-called telepathy - the only way that we in the audience have any understanding of what's going on in the scene is that we actually hear the telepath's `inner voice'. So it seems as if the telepath's thoughts must be just like our own `inner voice', but not one we could ever hear - and what does that sound like? Another related question concerns whether or not the telepath has non-projective thoughts, i.e. thoughts that another telepath could not hear. If so, what cognitive mechanisms could be employed to emit one kind of thought and not the other? Would these `secret' thoughts be like whispers instead of shouts? We could pursue several hypotheses in this context, but all the analogies one could use are drawn from normal speech and implicate standard, this-worldly causal mechanisms. The attempt to postulate a projective `inner voice' and an extroceptive `inner ear' completely misconstrues the actual connections between the brain and the powers of speech and hearing.

There is another intelligible and ordinary use of the concept of remote-feeling, as opposed to remote-thinking. When two people have been together for a long time their thoughts can sometimes intersect, that is, they can each have the same (though not identical) thought at the same time. This is most likely to occur when the respective thoughts are triggered by an incident or event that is a regular feature of their everyday life together. So much of everyday life is lived out according to habit that it is little wonder that a couple's thoughts may sometimes run along parallel tracks. For example, after the evening meal, just before doing the dishes and just after the nightly news report, one person says, “It would be really nice if we had some chocolate”, and the other says that's just what he was thinking - “you've read my mind.” Several comments are called for. First, this sort of cognitive `echo' doesn't strike us as anything out of the ordinary or paranormal. Second, this occurrence seems more likely the better the two people know each other, and less likely where personal rapport is weak or limited. But one tends to assume, without good reason, that the less likely such an event the more mysterious its sources must be. Third, while it may be highly tempting but misleading to construe the meaning of `mind-reading' above as a metaphorical extension of `reading', what sort of reading is this cognitive echo being compared to? Just as mind-hearing fails to find a coherent notion of an outward `inner voice', so also does mind-reading fail to find an inner text somehow displayed to anyone but its own author. For the paranormalist to respond that reading and hearing are metaphorical intentional verbs does not advance his case, since it isn't clear what reading or hearing would stand for. In contrast, one does not need a metaphor to convey the sense of having an object of thought.

The straight-forward sense of mind-reading in our example is that, at that moment, each person is thinking about the same thing; there are two cognitive acts whose `object' is chocolate, perhaps even the same actual piece of chocolate. In what way would a `genuine' telepath be doing something other than thinking about the same `object' as another person, telepathic or not? In the Next Star Trek case, perhaps we in the audience are willing to entertain the notion that real thought transfer has taken place because we don't know about a shared background of habitual practices between the two subjects. More than that, we might even know for a fact (about the fictional world) that the two subjects do not have such a shared background. But it is a logical fallacy to infer from ignorance of the subjects' rapport to the truth of the hypothesis that some sort of thought-transfer must be at work here. Let's imagine a very finely tuned Magnetic Resonance Imagery apparatus attached to a person's head. The trial subject has trained himself to think very clearly and distinctly about several dozen simple 'objects'; these are the terms in his mental vocabulary or image repertoire. Another person, the observer, has been trained to recognize the MRI display of certain specific patterns and correlate them with their 'objects'. So, the question here is whether the observer is 'reading' the subject's thoughts when he correctly reports the sequence of images. But the answer is surely “No”; the observer recognizes a pattern as being about some thing in much the same way that anyone else comes to learn about and recognize ordinary patterns as signs; for example, certain highway signs stand for rockslides, narrow shoulders, speed limits and so forth. The insertion of an MRI display into our thought experiment serves to show that some sort of causal transmission takes place between the subject's thought about an `object' and the apparatus display. Then a perceptual process takes place when the observer perceives a certain pattern and identifies it as standing for an item in the subject's mental vocabulary. There isn't anything like such an apparatus in the imaginary Next Star Trek scenario, where we are meant to believe that a telepath directly perceives an item in a person's mental vocabulary, or directly grasps an `object' of thought. But there are even more serious problems at the epistemic core of the telepathy hypothesis. Some philosophers have held that thought is silent, inner speech and that speech is vocalized, outer thought. This itself is a controversial hypothesis but let's grant some cogency to the idea of an “inner form of the word”, as Jean Piaget phrased it. It seems to be widely, though not universally, accepted that every human being has a basic, primal language. Thus we understand what someone means when they say that they have finally mastered German when they think or dream in the German language. But what language does the telepath think in? His or her own natural language or a special language? Could a German-speaking (or thinking) telepath understand a French telepath? Could an Earth-born telepath understand a telepath from an extraterrestrial civilization? If sender and receiver need to share the same natural language then this imposes a normal, not para-normal, constraint on an alleged sixth-sense that paranormalists claim has escaped the narrow parameters of our ordinary senses. One might respond to this objection by arguing (as does the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, amongst others) that all humans have a universal language of thought; but this also is a highly contentious theory which has serious problems of its own. Even on a generous construal of the language-of-thought hypothesis, its proponents do not claim that it has all the properties of natural human languages. In particular, it does not have any phonic shapes or contours. And this brings us back to the original question in the first section: what exactly is it that the telepath is meant to be reading or hearing when he claims to `have' another person's thoughts?

In this context let me reprise an argument from an earlier article of mine, in Cogito (April 1997). In a quite straight-forward manner, the brain does not directly produce outward speech. The brain instructs the vocal organs to produce sounds, or the hands to produce graphic signs. So just what is the brain supposed to be doing when telepathy occurs? The brain does generate electro-magnetic pulses which can be detected by external apparatus and some paranormalists have argued that there is nothing in principle to rule out the brain also functioning as a receiver. But my question then would be, just what is the brain alleged to receive? Perhaps we are more familiar with this kind of point in arguments against the reduction of thoughts to neuro-chemical events. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the thoughts I have are identical with their neuro-chemical support in my brain. So if someone says that a specific neural event which occurs when I have the thought there’s a red ball can be transmitted and received by his brain, he still hasn’t shown me that he has that thought. In fact, it’s not even clear whether, if he did indeed have the thought there's a red ball, it would be a token of my thought or his thought. It doesn't seem to make any sense that it would be a token of his thought since this doesn't show that any transfer took place; nor that it's a token of my thought that he's having since then these two tokens would be numerically identical.

Another way to illustrate this point is to imagine a piece of card black on one side, white on the other. You're looking at the black side, someone else is looking at the white side, and this person claims that he is going to transfer his thought of seeing white so that you have this thought. What exactly would be the thought that you have if this experiment were successful? While you are seeing black would you also be seeing white from his point-of-view? In which case, what has happened to your point-of-view; where has the cognitive content of seeing black gone? On the other hand, if while seeing black you would be seeing white from your point-of-view, then there's a contradiction in a claim about your thought. The counter-sense is that you are both seeing black and not seeing black as the content of one and the same thought.

A Brief History of Telepathy and Culture

Unlike the belief in ghosts, reports about telepathy and telekinesis begin to appear only 100 to 150 years ago - this makes remote-thinking and remote-moving relatively recent paranormal phenomena. But that is hardly surprising when one considers the historical advent of the telegraph, the telephone, television and so forth. Table-rapping came into vogue in Victorian-era spiritualist seances in a culture familiar with telegraphic messages; `voices' from the other side became the preferred mediumistic device in a culture more familiar with telephone calls. These inventions introduced to the general public the ideas that cause and effect, signal and receiver, can be separated by great distances. The continuous conduit that carries a message is ruptured where it disappears underground, into high tension wires, or even the very air itself. The technical skill shown in these inventions is in the transformation of one type of signal, say, tapping on a metal key, into another type of signal, electrical pulses in a copper wire; but the conceptual skill is in the art of making things seem closer than they are. The mechanism of teleportation in the original Star Trek and other sci-fi films represents an exponential increase in the imaginative construction of such devices. The concept of teleportation seems to be no more than the limit of a continuous series of instantaneous transfer devices. At the same time that it shows just how far we think that our imagination can reach, it does not show that we now have any good reason to think that our imagination is more powerful than the facts allow.

At about the same time as the introduction of distance-collapsing devices such as the telephone, naturalistic theories of the mind and the Freudian theory of the unconscious helped to create a picture of the conscious, thinking being as an inner vessel or chamber with hidden compartments. It seems plausible to the paranormalists that there is a kind of psychic separation between the latent source of some thoughts and their manifestation in conscious awareness. Furthermore, telepathic encounters are supposed to involve the bridging of this inner psychic gap. Several advocates of telepathic self-help employ a crude picture of the brain's left and right hemispheres, between which some sort of inner message transfer takes place. Others make much of the `mental modularity' or `society-of-minds' model, and in both cases treat the component parts of the mind almost as conscious agents in their own right. Thus in their hands such complex mind-brain models are reduced to a thinly-concealed homuncular account; there is an inner, `secret' agent who perceives perceptions, examines mental contents, and `spies' on other people's thoughts and feelings.

To make matters worse for the paranormalist, the attempt to extend the concept of remote-sensing to telepathy or tele-cognition through an analogy with television or telephony doesn’t get off the ground in the first place. In the case of tele-vision, where the origin or source of the pictures is remote from the viewer, the distance is bridged by means of broadcast or optical/wire transmission, but the viewer perceives the images in his immediate environment. Thus there are external representations of the remote original presentation, whose production is beyond the range of direct perception. The same account can be given for telephony and telegraphy in terms of external, but nearby, representations of the remote original sounds or marks. But how would this account cover the case of tele-cognition? Another person's thoughts do indeed have an origin remote from the first subject; no matter how physically close the two persons are, the remoteness of one’s thoughts to another person's thoughts does not decrease. The other person’s thoughts are beyond the range of one's direct sensory perception. But what is the alleged means of transmission which could bridge this `distance' between signal and receiver? And more than that, surely the distance across which remote-thinking is supposed to take place is nothing like being physically far away? In the Next Star Trek scenario, we are led to believe that the telepath has to be `within range' in order to receive remote thoughts; but what could that mean? One seems forced to draw the inference that thoughts spread out like the light from a beacon, becoming diffuse and vague as the radius increases. The analogy with television or telephony falls at a further hurdle: if another person's thoughts are remote, in some unknown sense, there isn't anything that would count as the external representations perceived by the telepath prior to his attributing them to a remote source.

Is It All in the Mind?

There is a plausible though unwelcome explanation for what's going on when some people claim to be genuine telepaths. In the psychiatric classification of the various forms of schizophrenia one unusual symptom is called `thought insertion'; this refers to a mental state in which the psychotic patient has thoughts which he or she attributes to someone else. The psychiatrists' standard reference work, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (Fourth Edition) carefully distinguishes this psychotic disorder from auditory hallucinations. In the former, the patient knows or is aware that `alien' thoughts occur in her mind, but denies that she is the author of those thoughts; in the latter, `voices' are heard as emanating from outside the person’s body but the source has disappeared or is using a remote device. Where the former is a disturbance of attribution of agency, the latter is (at least in part) the result of deterioration in the boundary of self and world. The telepath may experience an `inner voice' other than its `normal' voice and, though she does consider the utterance as occurring in her own mind, she attributes the author of the utterance to someone else as agent. Several telepathy advocates admit that as many as one in five of those who claim telepathic experiences suffer from some form of mental illness. But these advocates fail to mention how mentally `normal' people can manifest such disturbed thought processes without an underlying pathological condition.

There are numerous well-remarked issues in contemporary philosophy of perception and cognition about the nature and properties of thoughts, their causal relations to neural states, the intentional directedness of thoughts, the ideal or real status of `objects' of thought, indirect versus direct relations to the world, and so forth. Depending on their allegiance to various mind-brain models, metaphysical commitments, and other factors, philosophers adopt different attitudes on each of these issues. There is no generic, neutral attitude towards the questions raised by these issues; but it is precisely through the avoidance of these questions that the paranormalist can propound the notion that telepathy is an actual power of (some) human beings and that genuine insight can be gained about the nature of the human mind by the examination of reported instances. At least part of what seems to be missing from intelligent philosophical discussion of paranormalists' claims about telepathy or tele-cognition is the absence of any paranormal theory of mind; but perhaps that absence is itself symptomatic of an underlying disturbance. In recent years there has been much promising research in the philosophy of mental illness1 by way of the hypothesis that mental patients employ a misplaced or incomplete `theory' of mind (even if such a `theory' is not consciously held but merely tacit). An adequate model of such a disturbed theory of mind might lead researchers to better understand, not only the cognitive basis of mental illness itself, but also the sort of cognitive dysfunction which could lead to the idea, held by some paranormal advocates, that the mind has telepathic powers.

© Paul MacDonald 2003

Paul MacDonald is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.

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