Why psychic abilities probably aren’t possible

May 28, 2010 10:47 pm Published by 4 Comments

If only psychic abilities were as obvious as this.

Usually when someone is arguing that psychics aren’t real, they talk about cold reading, self-delusion, and the willingness to believe. In other words, they explain how a psychic is doing what they’re doing.

I’m going to try a different take. I’m going to try to show that what psychics claim to be doing is impossible, by using evolution as our guide.

First, what are we talking about when we say “psychic abilities”? For the purposes of this article, I’m going to define them as one or more of the following phenomena:

  1. The ability to read another person’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions.
  2. The ability to sense past, present, or future events without prior knowledge.
  3. The ability to hear or communicate with the dead, gods, aliens, angels/demons, or other unseen agents.

I’m not going to address #3 at all. And I’m not going to address what some people consider to be “evidence” of psychic abilities, except to say that what I’ve seen is extremely weak and isn’t worthy of being called evidence at all.

We frequently hear people refer to psychic abilities as a “sixth sense”, and that would be a pretty good classification, if they were real. Our senses help us gather information about the world around us, and that information helps us survive. Survival is at the core of evolution, of course. Anything that gives us a better chance of surviving long enough to pass on our genes is a beneficial adaptation.

Our eyes help us see the threats around us, so we can avoid those threats or prepare for them. And for humans, our eyes and ears are the main senses we use when interacting with other living creatures. When we encounter an animal in the forest, we can study its behavior, its posture, its vocalizations. Does it see us? Does it seem scared or defensive or aggressive? Where is it? By using our senses to answer such questions, we’re able to take actions which will increase our odds of survival, such as running away, hiding, and preparing to fight.

Now imagine that you had the ability described in #1. Before you can even see or hear a nearby animal, you can detect its thoughts. You can sense whether it knows you’re there, you can sense whether it considers you a threat, you can sense whether it intends to attack you or leave you alone. Or, let’s say you have the abilities described in #2. You’re able to see if you’ll be attacked by an animal today, maybe even when.

Psychic abilities would lend their possessors a huge survival advantage, probably even more than sight does.

But abilities as major as our senses don’t just pop into existence (no matter what the creationists say). They evolve gradually over hundreds of millions of years. Psychic abilities would start minor, with the possessor of such abilities sensing vague intentions from other beings, or small flashes of events. (I can’t even begin to speculate how a psychic organ would evolve, but it’s worth pointing out that we’ve never found one.)

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This post was written by Bevans

4 Comments

  • I think you hit it right on the head. Check out my blog. I wrote about an entire planet in which psychic ability is real.
    http://rationalcrank.blogspot.com/2010/05/psychic

  • attilad says:

    I like the approach, but this article needs some work. A better way to address #2: if we could see the future, optical illusions wouldn’t work [reference] (http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/080602-foresee-future.html) On the other hand, >"Psychic abilities … would be widespread throughout the animal kingdom, just as eyes and ears are." Watching pack animals cooperate, I’d almost believe in psychic communication. It makes more sense than "They’re magically born knowing what to do". Now that I’m thinking about it, what’s really psychic, anyway? I mean, you’re reading my thoughts right now across thousands of miles.
    This comment was originally posted on Reddit

  • Interesting read, I especially like idea that psychic ability wouldn’t be fully developed in some people, and then not apparent in most people at all. As important as a sense as it would be, it would be easily selected for and developed.
    This comment was originally posted on Reddit

  • Claudia says:

    Thanks for this post! Even though i, obviously, do believe in psychic abilities, i also think it is necessary to have a discussion about these matters and not blindly believe everything people say. “I want to believe” is , in many cases, a bad starting point to free yourself from illusions.

    I do want to point out a potential problem in your argument. At first sight, it is compelling but it does not take into account the possibility, that humans have developed a trait which made psychic abilities somewhat superflous for survival. For instance, we still have body hair because we neede it at some point for survival – it kept us warm. Nowadays, thanks to technology, we are very unlikely to freeze to death because of artificial heating, good clothing etc. Body hair is going extinct, sure, but it is still there.

    I would hypothesize that the same could hold true for psychic abilities. We don’t need to sense a predator behind us because we have cameras. We don’t need to communicate telepathically because we have cellphones and the Internet. Even if we HAD inborn psychic powers, why would we care to learn how to use them if there was no apparant need?

    Thanks and much love,
    Claudia

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