0. Something to think about...A complete stranger hands you a sealed envelope and asks you to choose an number between one and fifty. A bit puzzled, perhaps, you think for a moment and announce "twenty-eight". The stranger scribbles this in a notebook, tells you to open the envelope in two weeks, smiles, and disappears.
Two weeks later you open the envelope to find a piece of paper with "28" printed neatly in the centre. Your mind swims with possible explanations, including the possibility that it was merely a coincidence. But a few days later, the stranger reappears with another envelope, you choose another number, and the sequence of events repeats. How many times would this have to occur before you accepted that something VERY STRANGE INDEED was going on?
1. Basic IdeaThe idea of the Project is to make use of recently established global computer networking facilities in order to explore the purported anomalous effect known as retropsychokinesis (from now on we shall refer to this as "RPK"). The existence of such an effect has such profound philosophical implications that, despite repeated and well-regulated demonstrations carried out for over 20 years, it has remained an obscure matter of parapsychological controversy. However, the emergence of the WWW has created an exciting new possibility.
Although attempts to create "online" interactive parapsychological experiments have already appeared on the WWW, these are in early stages of development and published results have not been extensive. These experiments are increasing awareness of the claims and methods of parapsychology research. But the collection of data for serious research purposes is obviously restricted, as subjects cannot be supervised, and the lack of control in the experiments jeopardises the credibility of any results obtained.
However, the "retrocausal" or reverse-time nature of RPK is such that problems of this nature can generally be overcome. The proposed experiment(s) would, in fact, bypass most of the usual obstacles which occur in parapsychological research. These include attracting and motivating appropriate subjects, the limitations on the number of subjects which can be tested in any reasonable length of time, the elimination of all possible fraud, and the difficulties subjects face in performing in unfamiliar laboratory settings or in the presence of sceptical observers. The difficulties in publicising and gaining acceptance for the results obtained has perhaps been the most significant obstacle. Experiments which yield significant results have generally been accepted by the "believers" and rejected by the sceptics as insufficiently well-regulated (a claim which is often justified, but which can never be overcome in the existing research format). However, this too could change, as we shall see.
2. A Brief History of Retropsychokinesis ResearchThe more generally-defined effect known as psychokinesis (PK) has been studied extensively since the 1930's when J.B. Rhine (Duke University) began systematically testing claims that seemingly random events such as dice and coin throws are subject to subtle psychic influences. His succesor, Helmut Schmidt, increased the rigour and efficiency of these experiments by introducing an electronic random number generator which used subatomic decay processes in order to generate data of the most fundamentally "random" nature. One must keep in mind that the issue of randomness is a difficult one - the interpretation of probabilities, the seeming effectiveness of statistical methods, and the fundamental role which probabilities play in quantum mechanical models of objective reality are all problems closely related to this work. Schmidt went on to run experiments similar to the original ones (PK effects on electronically generated random data), the only diference being that the data was prerecorded (and, importantly, unobserved), rather than generated in "real time" as the experiments were carred out. Despite being extraordinarily counterintuitive, the results suggested strongly that unobserved random events which occured in the past are subject to psychokinetic influence - in other words, the human mind can in some (limited) sense "influence" or at least "select" the past.
Schmidt and others have spent many years repeating the experiments, refining the techniques, and gathering valuable data, despite the general lack of public awareness and academic acceptance which they have received. Various acausal models of reality, and appropriate modifications of quantum theory have been suggested in order to account for the phenomenon, yet many fundamental questions regarding the nature of time, consciousness and causality remain largely unanswered.
The Project has been in communication with Schmidt (now retired, but still active) for the past few months, and we have received letters and e-mail in which he describes the proposed experiment as "very reasonable and exciting". Although he admits to being only vaguely familiar with the more sophisticated applications of the Internet, he can be contacted via e-mail. He has provided the Project with a random number generator and continues to offer useful advice as it is needed.
3. Description of the Proposed Experiment.The experiment we intend to carry out would involve subjects attempting to influence random data aided by a visual display appearing on their computer screen. The display program would be sent to the subject from the Project (probably launched automatically within the WWW environment using Java), together with with (unobserved) randomly-generated data files from which it would read. Secure copies of each data file would be kept by the Project, so any influence which the subject exerts on his/her copy could be measured remotely at any later time. That is, we look at our copy of the data, and do not need to rely on the honesty of the (unsupervised) subject. We can then calculate the appropriate statistics, and log them in a database, which will be viewable via our homepage.
Examples of the visual feedback programs which will be used are currently available via anonymous FTP. These are C++ programs written by Schmidt and compiled as DOS-executables. If you are interested in testing your own RPK abilities (or those of someone else) feel free to download them and experiment. Our major obstacle at present is the conversion of these programs into Java (or an equivalently interactive format). Unfortunately this involves quite a lot of work, and despite several offers of help from enthusiastic programmers, progress has been rather limited in this area.
Various researchers (Dean Radin, Roger Nelson, etc.) in contact with us have pointed out that very large-scale experiments inevitably yield much "noise" (i.e. worthwhile results are "diluted" by the untalented majority). To avoid this situation, we plan to introduce a hierarchical "filtering" method. Anyone will be welcome to participate in "Level 0" of the experiment; this is intended for potentially talented subjects to practice on. Users of Level 0 who achieve "significant" scores will be offered the chance to gain access to Level 1. This is intended to filter out most of the "noise". By achieving significant cumulative results over large numbers of runs, subjects will gain access to higher levels. Each level will be understood as a self-contained experiment, with progressively higher levels presumably involving fewer subjects, but generating more significant results.
Further complications in experiment design have arisen due to the surfacing of "decision augmentation theory" or DAT, which argues that although the phenomenon undoubtedly involves "the flow of information from future to past", statistical analysis suggests that it is a form of precognition and does not involve any sort of influence. The theory appeared shortly after this Project was established, and as it is of great importance to parapsychology research, it seems appropriate that our experiment design should include tests for the validity of DAT.
Multiple visual and sound-based feedback programs will eventually be made available through the site, as it seems from previous research that each subject performs differently with different types of feedback. Users with programming ability will be encouraged to develop and contribute their own feedback programs. It is important to note that although the whole experiment could potentially be presented (or perceived) as a novel form of entertainment, unlike parapsychologically-based television or stage entertainment, the results cannot be immediately dismissed in the same way. For any concerned sceptic who is sufficiently interested can choose to become involved as follows:
- We e-mail them a randomly-generated file Z, with instructions to copy it onto a floppy disk, and to leave it unobserved until further notice.
- The sceptic should then remove the disk from his/her machine and put it somewhere secure.
- S/he will then be asked to select a simple "message" to be "encoded" into this file (such an encoding clearly violates common sense notions of time and causality) and e-mail the selection to the Project.
- We forward this, along with a copy of file Z to a subject who has shown significant RPK abilities in past experiments, and instructions to encode the "message" into the file.
- On completing this task, the subject contacts the Project, and we then instruct the sceptic to look at the contents of file Z which have been safely held on a disk for the duration of the experiment.
A more sophisticated (and perhaps sensationalistic) approach could involve the posting of PGP-encrypted files on widely read USENET newsgroups which purported to "predict" perhaps a single number from the following week's UK National Lottery. The contents of the files would actually be the unobserved "compression" of a large amount of unobserved random data. In this way, we could perhaps set up experiments with succesful subjects in which they attempt to "retrocausally" encode the correct number into the file after it has been selected. The PGP decryption key would then be revealed on the newsgroups, allowing the public to see for themselves evidence of RPK. (Note that this has nothing to do with attempting to win lotteries, or using psychic abilities for personal gain. The lottery numbers simply serve as well-publicised and agreed-upon random "targets" for our demonstration of RPK.)
Our experience with the Internet suggests that a huge number of potential subjects could quite easily be reached in a relatively short time. The fact that they will be free to perform in their own environment, rather than in a (possibly distracting) laboratory, may make a significant difference. Furthermore, the almost unlimited numbers of people who could potentially participate in the experiment simultaneously, without the need for careful supervision, should speed the research process up considerably. Dr. Schmidt has cautioned us, however, that the key to getting results in these experiments may be the effort we make to "maintain some semblance of personal contact between subject and experimenter". Also, Charles Tart, the well-known U.C.Davis consciousness researcher has suggested that "there is an important experimenter effect in all psi research; some people have the "magic touch" and regularly get results, others don't and we have little idea as to why." Therefore we shall do our best to make the entire experimental apparatus available to anyone on the Web who would like to conduct similar research.
4. Philosophical Implications.The existence of this effect (if in fact it does exist) raises some very deep questions concerning the nature of time, the relationship between consciousness and objective material reality, the concept of causality, and the concept of randomness. The much misunderstood "multiple (or parallel) universes" interpretation of quantum mechanical phenomena has been suggested as part of a model which encompasses the RPK phenomenon. This in itself raises many important questions. The idea of "will" is certainly related, as this is the best existing description of that which the subject uses in order to exert an influence. The will's influence has been discussed in some details by the emminent parapsychologist J. Beloff in an article on teleology vs. mechanism.
Many peripheral issues are also worthy of consideration. For example, there is the reliability of experimental data in particularly sensitive areas of subatomic physics (largely based on subtle statistical assumptions, and therefore possibly subject to PK or RPK influences). Perhaps more controversially one might want to contemplate the supposedly "random" nature of the genetic mutations which are axiomatic in the Darwinian model of biological evolution.
Perhaps most profoundly, the very idea of "similar" measurable events, which constitutes the starting point of all theories of probability and statistics (keeping in mind that all descriptions of the physical universe are inherently statistical), and the (related) ubiquity of certain statistical distributions in the physical world, particularly the Gaussian (or normal) distribution, may need serious re-evaluation. For if the phenomenon is real, it suggests that such distributions can effectively be warped through the exertion of poorly understood psychic faculties. This then suggests that the perception of the physical universe as proceeding according to statistically regular (i.e. "normal", in the truest sense) patterns may be be linked to some ongoing, collective, and/or self-reinforcing psychic projection or interaction.
Finally, the purported results can be very simply adapted to demonstrate what can only be interpreted as an instantaneous transmission of information. This violates the speed-of-light limit set by Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and is related to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox and the concept of quantum nonlocality. This in itself, we believe, is sufficiently important to justify the experiments.
5. AfterwordThe scenario described at the beginning of this document, involving strangers with envelopes, numbers printed on pieces of paper, etc. was only intended as a metaphor. However, we aim to demonstrate equivalently "impossible" things using the slightly less "physical" medium of e-mail, computer files, etc. But it should be pointed out that if RPK really exists (and the best existing database suggests that the odds are in the order of 1 in 630 thousand million that the experimental evidence is the result of chance), then such a stunt could theoretically be carried out. The number in the envelope would be the "compression" of a large block of unobserved random numbers, calculated and printed via computer, and sealed in the envelope without being observed. After a number was chosen, the "stranger" would "unravel" it according to a certain algorithm, and set up a series of RPK trials with talented subjects who would in effect be "encoding" subtle biases into the original block of random data. This seemingly "retrocausal" action should result in the printed number "having been" the number which you (at a later time) selected.