Saturday, January 17, 2015

Whatever Happened to Helmut Schmidt?

Ways of being (dhammā) are preceded by mind; they have mind as chief; they are mind-made. —the first verse of the Dhammapada
     I suppose this post should be written in scholarly fashion, with exact figures, a bibliography, footnotes, and little superscripted numbers all over the place; but at present I'm living in a tropical forest with no access to a research library and with only a few hours of Internet access per month. We do the best we can. Ultimately, it doesn't matter.
     One of the books I mooched from my father's bookcase (with his permission) during one of my past visits to America to visit my family (and to mooch books from my father) was Parapsychology: The Controversial Science by Dr. Richard S. Broughton (Ballantine, New York: 1991). Technically speaking, I still own the book; but it is in storage many thousands of miles from here, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, so I have no physical access to it. The only reason I have included more book information above than the title and the name "Dr. Broughton" is that I found it cited in a file in this computer. So the following information from the book is reproduced from memory. I do have a pretty good memory though.
     Broughton's book, which is well worth reading, contains a wealth of weird information about parapsychological research. The documented accounts of poltergeist phenomena are particularly mind-blowing. But there is one section which describes research which is more philosophically profound, yet superficially much less dramatic than, say, wall mirrors somehow flying through closed doors, then smashing, with the particles of broken glass then flying in formation around the room, and also around a troubled teenage girl who was the chronic focus of such events. (Poltergeist phenomena tend to be generated by emotionally troubled young people—or so say the scientists who investigate these things—but that's a totally different story.)
     The really revolutionary information, potentially revolutionary at least, involves a German/American scientist named Helmut Schmidt. He was director of Boeing laboratories in Seattle, Washington back around the 1950's. There happened to be a lull in research, so Dr. Schmidt requested permission to conduct some investigations on the possibility of consciousness affecting physical systems, and received a green light. So he conducted some experiments which, if the results are valid, could seriously overturn the way most people look at reality.

Dr. Helmut Schmidt

     He started by constructing a random number generator. He did this by combining a small sample of an unstable, radioactive isotope of some element with a geiger counter, and then combining this generator of random clicks with a kind of number counter. He usually restricted the number counter to 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4,… or just to 1, 2, 1, 2,…, with the number on the counter when the geiger counter clicked being the random number generated. So in the simple case of 1's and 2's, the generator produced, essentially, the same as a series of random coin tosses.
     One system he devised was to transform the random 1's and 2's into audio clicks in a pair of stereo headphones. He would tell an experimental subject, "Try to make more clicks sound on the left side," or "Try to make more clicks sound on the right side." The target sides were chosen at random. He found that people in general have an ability to affect the clicks to the extent that the result is about 0.3% more than what would be expected at random; or in other words, if the average person tries to make more clicks happen on the left side of the headphones, he or she can, on average, succeed in causing 50.3% of the clicks to be on the left side (with 49.7% on the right). This small difference may seem insignificant, but since the tests took only a few seconds each, the clicks happening pretty fast, and were rather easy to run, Dr. Schmidt was able to collect a huge sample size, so that a difference of o.3% from random is statistically significant. Broughton points out that a famous experiment back around the 1980's was conducted to determine if one aspirin tablet taken daily was effective in the prevention of heart disease in humans, and the results were similar—about o.3% less heart disease than in the control group. But even so, the experiment was concluded early, because with this statistical significance it was considered unethical to continue depriving the control group of a daily aspirin tablet. Schmidt found that some people are particularly talented at biasing random clicks, succeeding with a difference of around 0.7%. In many of his experiments he preferred to use these "gifted" subjects.
     Thus far his experimentation is interesting enough: if he's not a fraud or bungler, then the human mind can affect a physical process in a presumably nonphysical way. (Incidentally, one reason why the scientists of the Soviet Union were so frustrated in their parapsychological research, of which they did plenty, is that their commitment to Marxist materialism kept them searching in vain for some kind of waves or energy field emanating from the subjects' head.) But what Schmidt did next really fascinates me. He found that the same results are derived from doing the headphone experiments using a prerecorded tape! The condition is that nobody must have listened to it before. So a prerecorded tape of random clicks could still be affected by the human mind. He even went to the extent of sending copies of the tapes to his critics, allowing them to determine in advance which side would be the target, left or right—and the results were the same.
     The main thing about this that fascinates me is not that human consciousness can manipulate matter, but that a macroscopic object, in this case a cassette tape, can still be in a kind of indeterminate state before being closely exposed to a perceiving mind. It is the perceiving mind which "collapses the state vector," to use some classical physics jargon. The situation is reminiscent of the famous case of Schrödinger's Cat, in which the same sort of radioactive random decay may or may not have resulted in the death of a boxed cat; or rather, it isn't dead or alive at all until someone opens the box and looks. And their looking, or perceiving, is what determines it. (Erwin Schrödinger, by the way, founded the study of wave mechanics, and won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and was no moron.)
     So the big question is, to what extent does the human mind condition an apparently physical world? Is everything like the content of those cassette tapes, in a state of quantum indeterminacy until some mind perceives it and stabilizes it, one way or the other? Interestingly, Mahayana Buddhism teaches something along these lines. But let's not get into Mahayana Buddhism.
     Let's consider, first of all, the little number zero (0). Has zero always existed? The ancient Greeks and Romans, despite their equal intelligence to ours and their mathematical and engineering achievements, didn't know of it. For them it didn't exist. The concept of zero is a purely artificial abstraction, based upon some something that isn't there, and would seem to be totally unnecessary for a viable understanding of reality. Something like modern science might even be able to exist without it, somehow, although it would certainly be very different from what we have now.
     How about the speed of light? Has it always been 299,000km per second, even before anyone measured it? The dinosaurs and Fred Flintstone certainly didn't know of it. How could kilometers per second exist without anyone thinking them up? Could it be that the speed of light was uncertain, like the content of one of Schmidt's cassette tapes, until the first scientist measured it precisely, thereby determining and stabilizing it? 
     How about electrons, viruses, and bacteria? It is true that there are allegedly fossils hundreds of millions of years old which indicate that bacteria were here long before we were, but, like those cassette tapes, the "collapse of the state vector" may appear to be retroactive. How long could one of those (macroscopic) tapes sit on a shelf in an indeterminate state before some experimental subject listens to it and causes it to have clicks recorded on it which, for all appearances and to all appeals to common sense, must have been there since the recording was made? Or for that matter, does anything exist at all if nobody is perceiving it?
     There are two possibilities which come to mind here: a relatively conservative one, and a relatively radical one. Even the conservative one may sound like nonsense to a devout materialist, but that's of no great import. The conservative theory is that before a perceiving mind becomes aware of something, that something is indeterminate, that is, it does not exist as a distinct entity, and that the act of perception itself differentiates it from the environment and gives it an individuality, a "self." It would still presumably be, potentially at least, still there somehow, kind of, even if nobody is perceiving it. 
     As mentioned just now, devout materialists may consider even this mild version of the indeterminacy of unperceived objects to be nonsense; but that is largely because these folks are a bit too narrow-minded and much too philosophically naive to realize that their own position is practically impossible. It necessitates human ape psychology to be superimposed upon the so-called "real world" even if there are no human apes around to produce that psychology. It is largely because of this that philosophers like F. H. Bradley have called a materialistic metaphysic "barbarous." It appears, upon examination, impossible. 
     On the other hand, the indeterminacy and voidness of unperceived objects is fairly easy to demonstrate, and that in any number of ways. One of the easiest is to point out that nothing can possibly exist as a distinct entity without relations, of which there are potentially an infinite number, but which conveniently can be lumped into the two general categories of "same as" and "different from." Every pixel of blue in a blue spot, to give a very simple example, is perceived as the same as every other pixel in that spot, in order for it to be perceived as the same blue of the same blue spot. Then again, it must also be perceived as different from everything around that spot. Without these relations, it is not an "it." It is simply Void. But these relations of "same as" and "different from" are merely artifacts of the aforementioned human ape psychology. No scientist analyzing a sample of matter will ever isolate pure "same as" because it simply doesn't exist in the objective universe. It is a figment of our subjective imagination. But without it, the world of multiplicity collapses—it evaporates, poof, and leaves only Void in its place. Simple, yet almost nobody gets it. 
     Anyway, the other, radical theory is that, not only is a perceiving mind necessary to "liberate" objects from an unthinkable Void, but that perception creates all the individual objects of a pluralistic cosmos, and what is created is a matter of individual temperament. Thus this world would be a kind of dream. Schmidt's findings seem to incline in that radical direction. I'm not sure if there really is a difference between these two theories, though. To differentiate them may be meaningless. Void is Void. 
     But I'm getting way ahead of Helmut Schmidt. What he was working on just took a step or two in the direction of demonstrating that our perceiving minds not only condition our surrounding "reality" in non-physical ways, but that they also condition a past that somehow didn't even exist until someone perceived it, even though that past has left clear marks of its past existence.
     As I've already mentioned, I have very little Internet access nowadays, and zero (didn't exist in Classical Europe) research library; so my efforts to find out about Dr. Schmidt and his revolutionary research have been feeble. Pretty much all I found on a brief and casual search was a list of his published scientific articles. I never found any indication that he was eventually exposed as a fraud—although there are some who accuse all parapsychologists of being frauds. 
     So, considering how amazing Schmidt's research seems to be, why is he not famous? Why is he not hailed as some new Copernicus or Galileo? I suspect it has something to do with that narrow-mindedness issue mentioned above. Even scientists are products of their culture, and are human. They are only slightly more open-minded, and are probably less wise, than their premodern ecclesiastical predecessors. (After all, "wisdom" is not a scientific word.) Helmut Schmidt is, essentially, a scientific heretic; and since burning heretics at the stake is no longer fashionable, heretics are simply ignored, with recourse to the subtle censorship of silence; and if that is not enough, then they are occasionally condemned, or just ridiculed. It appears that Western civilization has never fully recovered from the effects of a Christian ideological and philosophical monoculture. 
     Then again, maybe Schmidt was exposed as a fraud or bungler, and I just never heard of it. 

Did microns exist before somebody invented them?
Did bacteria exist before somebody discovered them?
If so, in what way?


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