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When All of Us Are Nostradamus

Reductio ad Absurdum

Kyle Hill

July 11, 2013

You open up the morning paper to check the obituaries. With a shaking hand, you read what you’ve been dreading all along—your own name. Your number is up; your fate is sealed. Sometime in the next month you are going to die. Everyone knows it. And you know it, too. At least you have time to choose your own epitaph. You’re psychic; everyone is, or at least has the potential to be.

Peeking at the hand fate dealt you is commonplace in a world where psychics actually exist. For them, the future is as clear as the past, though abilities would range from Spidey sense to Oracle at Delphi. The most powerful seers—the Nostradamuses, if you will—among them wouldn’t be relegated to pricey phones lines. Such powers almost demand public service. A Minority Report-style pre-cognition division would surely spring up in every police department that could afford one. Seismologists and volcanologists could no longer be persecuted for inadequate predictions—the onus would be on the psychics to alert the public of impending natural disasters. Predicting better than even our best computer models, tune in for the psychic weather forecast on the nightly news.

If people had psychic future-sight every phone number would be for a Miss Cleo. Casinos around the world would close. Gambling isn’t a matter of luck anymore; can you predict the snake eyes or not? And the lottery hardly seems fair when any real psychic could pluck the numbers from the tealeaves. Insurance plans would diversify and skyrocket. When a psychic insurance agent could predict a cancer diagnosis, future-existing conditions are what they will deny. Forget about the heat of competition. Every sports team is a group of players on a stage going through the determined script until the last whistle blows.

Raising children in a world full of actual psychics would involve going through another stage of development: existential turmoil. If a psychic taps into the loom of fate to see where a string weaves, children would quickly learn that they live in a determined world. Perhaps they will learn about free will like psychology students learn about behaviorism—a clever idea that eventually fell by the wayside in the light of how the world really is. Is anyone really responsible for his or her actions? Should we punish criminals if they are beholden to fate and not sadistic whim? Parents in a world full of real psychics wouldn’t look forward to fielding such questions. The “birds and the bees” talk is much easier to handle.

Real psychics wouldn’t just grasp the future. They would be able to sense beyond what an eye or ear can tell them—a “sixth sense” for objects and feelings. Marriage disputes over where the hell the remote is are no more. Car keys, if not in the pocket, are never lost. Neither are children or loved ones. Real psychics wouldn’t be the laughing stocks of detectives anymore; they would be their saviors. Resolving a manhunt or Amber Alert would be a simple matter of having the psychic manpower (and psychic children would find hide and seek pretty boring). Every cold case would be hot again.

The best real psychics would be on par with Professor X—mentalists who wouldn’t have to rely on parlor tricks to see inside a mind. Reading minds would change love lives. Potential lovers on a first date wouldn’t have to wonder “does she like my cologne” or “does he notice my twinkling eye.” But mind games go both ways. First daters might also want to invest in psychic-proof helmets like Magneto if they have something more amorous in mind.

With the help of real psychics, we could finally answer questions whose answers would send waves across scientific fields. Are other animals conscious like us? Do they feel pain? Just ask them psychically. We could communicate with “locked-in” patients to discover what happens to the brain when the body undergoes too much trauma to speak (yet another reason to throw away “facilitated communication”).

The scientific advances might be masked by the drawbacks of a world where there are true psychics. The ability to read a thought is the key to the last lock of privacy. When the shelter of the skull can be penetrated by psychic power, a potential new way to oppress arises. The “thought crimes” of 1984 would be legislated under mentally conservative politicians. The private and sometimes terrible thoughts we have would stain us socially in the minds of others. Whenever we look over a great edge and think about jumping, or about pushing others…When we fantasize about killing that dog incessantly barking in the middle of the night…All the natural thoughts we never act on but embarrassingly sequester even within our own minds would be there for others to search and judge and stereotype and ridicule and hate.

For centuries, ethicists have had to work from theories of mind—what we imagine others to be thinking—instead of actual minds. In a world where a psychic could really capture a thought not his or her own, ethics would have to be revolutionized. The Fifth Amendment would be useless. You can’t avoid incriminating yourself when you can’t avoid telepathic examination. The ethics of accessing minds would germinate whole new fields of thought.

A world full of real psychics would include those who converse with the dead. (We’d have at least 100 billion ghosts to talk to.) John Edward or Sylvia Browne wouldn’t have to ask a crowd if anyone had a family member who died with a name starting with “P”—it would be completely obvious to them. Of course, such mediums would be out of work, as any world full of psychic powers would produce people with a higher hit rate than Sylvia—that is to say, better than practically zero. As amazing as talking to your dead relatives would be, the truth would come out in a psychic world: not everyone’s grandmother can be proud of them.

But instead of seeing a world filled with real expressions of psychic power, we see conflation, cold reading, and cons. And coincidence doesn’t mean a thing; it would be weirder if you didn’t have a dream that seemingly predicted the future. Though 40 percent of the public believes in extra-sensory perception, only two percent of scientists in the National Academy of Sciences think it has been demonstrated1. Despite this, so-called psychic fortunetellers and grief vampires take money all over the world for their predictions and premonitions, without making any serious changes to society. Could you reduce psychic powers to the absurd?


Reference

McConnell, R.A., and Clark, T.K. 1991. “National Academy of Sciences' Opinion on Parapsychology” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85, 333–365.

Kyle Hill

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Kyle Hill is a science writer who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. He writes for the Scientific American Blog Network at his blog, But Not Simpler. Hill also contributes to Slate, Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, and io9. He manages Nature Education's Student Voices blog, is a contributor to Al Jazeera America’s science show TechKnow, and you can follow him on Twitter under @Sci_Phile.