Monday, December 1, 2014

Quantum Physics and the Paranormal: Clinging to Disbelief

Sacchi Green

I don’t believe in paranormal phenomena. But I don’t exactly believe in quantum physics, either. Both are attempts to explain observational data, which is how most if not all “belief” systems developed. I have more confidence in the data the physicists have assembled through experimentation than I do in reports of paranormal activity, but my confidence isn’t yet on the level of belief. It’s not doubt, exactly, so much as an inability to comprehend the theories (or “grok” as we used to say back when Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was new, and some of we old folks still do.) In a religious context that should be the point at which I take things on faith, but I’m not inclined that way, and “belief” means something different to me.

This doesn’t mean that I discount the possibility that both of these schools of thought contain elements of truth, if there’s really such a thing as an absolute truth. (I’m not sure I believe in that, either.) Anyone who’s been around as long as I have will remember experiences that might fit into a paranormal context. Yes, I’ve felt a few times that lost loved ones were with me, but the mind works in mysterious ways, and that one isn’t all that mysterious. Of course your mind remembers them as though they were right there with you. And I’ve imagined things that turned out to be true; just a few days ago, only half awake in the middle of the night, I was thinking that much as I appreciate having the family Thanksgiving gathering at my brother’s house, I miss using my own special dishes and hand-blown wine glasses the way we used to, and wouldn’t it be weird if my sister-in-law called to say that they’d lost power in the snow storm and we’d have to cook the dinner at my place? Yes, at 7:30 AM, I got that “do you have power?” call. It wasn’t prescience on my part, since their power was already out when I had that thought, and it was, after all, snowing pretty hard, so it wasn’t strange that I thought about it. But still, one wonders… I’ve heard of much more convincing episodes, and been profoundly glad that too few of my own odd thoughts turn out to be accurate to be significant. I have really terrifying dreams or idle thoughts once in a great while, and can always take comfort in the fact that none of the important ones come true.

Our minds are so complex that we only understand a tiny fraction of how they work and what they can do, so maybe there are, in fact, rational explanations as yet undiscovered of how mental telepathy or prescience or telekinesis could work. Or even quantum physics. Come to think of it, the quantum physics assertion that merely observing the movement of particles has an effect on that movement sounds quite a bit like telekinesis. Will we discover some force like gravity or magnetism to explain both? Then, of course, we wouldn’t consider things like telekinesis to be paranormal at all. For now, I’m at best agnostic on both fronts.

However, I do understand and appreciate the allure of the mysterious, the ineffable, things that defy explanation and appeal to us for that very reason. I love tales of magic and special powers, all the more because I don’t need to believe them. I’ve written stories about a figure of legend in Brittany who aids the French underground during WW II, and shapeshifters, and a Green Man who heals a wounded soul in WWI, and a woman warrior who refuses to recognize her gifts as an earth mage until the day she has to cause an earthquake to save her people, and various other permutations of mystical powers. And I’ve written a ghost story, one of my favorite pieces.  Here’s an excerpt from that one—I’ll try to keep it short.

 From “Spirit Horse Ranch” (published in Haunted Hearths, edited by Catherine Lundoff for Lethe Press.)

Someone was behind her.
Emmaline, deep in the root cellar, hadn’t heard Sigri’s truck pull in or Chinook bark a welcome, but the sense of a presence was unmistakable. It had to be Sigri, or the dog would’ve sounded a warning. Sigri could sneak up on grazing elk, when the wind was right; even if Emmaline hadn’t been hammering at shelves for her preserves, she might have missed any sounds. She’d been humming, too, immersed in the joy of working among provisions of her own raising. Not that she wasn’t always, on some level, listening for Sigri every bit as intently as the dog did.
Sigri would sometimes press up against Emmaline from the rear with no warning, nuzzle her neck, and reach around for further fondling. If she was in the mood, why not go along with it? Emmaline lowered the hammer and moved back a step, as though surveying her handiwork. Her backside tingled in anticipation.
A touch on her hair made her jump. “You’re back early,” she said. “Didn’t figure you’d get here from Bozeman so... Ouch!” Fingers tightened on her long, thick braid, and icy-cold knuckles dug into the nape of her neck. Somebody pulled, hard.
“Hey!” Emmaline tried to turn. The hidden tormentor jerked her head back viciously and yanked again. Tears burned her eyes and panic pounded in her veins.
It wasn’t Sigri!
Sigri wouldn’t do that. She knew enough about Emmaline’s past, and the things that triggered memories. And no one else who knew would dare, or care enough, to search her out after twenty years--if he was even still alive.
Terror snapped into sudden rage. Emmaline wasn’t fifteen and vulnerable any more. She kicked back sharply at ankle-height, let out a yell worthy of an old-time Blackfeet war party, and swung the hammer at what should be a thigh--or, better yet, more vulnerable parts.
Her foot didn’t connect with anything. Neither did the hammer. But her yell brought Chinook scrambling down the stairs from the kitchen in a frenzy of barks and growls. Could the cellar, crowded with sacks of winter-keeping vegetables and shelves of canning jars, hold Emmaline, the intruder, and an enraged German Shepherd all at the same time?
Emmaline wrenched sideways to free herself. Resistance ceased so abruptly that she spun right around, her russet braid flipping over one shoulder. A gust of cold air rushed past; she staggered, nearly fell, and grabbed at Chinook’s shoulder for balance.
Nobody else was there.

[Spoilers, in case you wonder what’s going on here; the root cellar is part of an old pioneer “dugout” home, where two “sister wives” escaping from their Mormon husband took refuge, disguised as boys, until the husband tracked them down. They escaped when the horse they’d ridden in their escape trampled the roof of the dugout and buried the pursuing husband, killing him. But now, a hundred years later, some of the root cellar’s wall has crumbled, exposing the bones of a hand—and a malevolent spirit. Emmaline, a refugee herself from a now-illegal Mormon polygamous community, doesn't know about the bones yet, but the dog soon will.]

I’d really, really  like to keep ghosts at the head of the list of things I don’t believe in.  


  1. Sacchi:
    A well articulated statement of disbelief that should offend none of the legions of believers. Where is Rod Serling when you need him, telling us about the fuzzy boundary between the real and the imagined? While I am a believer to the extent of realizing there is lots I don't know, there seems no question that our minds work to create narrative out of the world around us.

  2. Cool excerpt, Sacchi-

    Plenty of action and atmospherics. And yeah, let the dead stay dead.

  3. Why are the ghosts be malevolent? (That's a scary excerpt, though, all the more so because of the implications that Emmaline had a history as a victim.)

    Re "more to heaven and earth", the recent movie by Luc Besson, "Lucy", explores this concept, though not very skillfully, alas. The premise is that normally we use only a small fraction of our brains. Lucy inadvertently consumes large amounts of a powerful psychoactive substance that "wakes up" her unused brain capacity. She gains telekinetic powers, the power to explore the physical states of others' bodies, and eventually, the power to transcend space and time. A rather hokey treatment of what might have been an intriguing concept.

  4. I thought at first of discussing what we mean by "paranormal" in the context of writing erotica, and I'm thinking that I should have stuck with that instead of what I did. Maybe someone else here is going to tackle the question of whether shape shifters, vampires, demons, etc. should really be tossed in with things like prescience and telekinesis and other psychic manifestations. Has the rush to calling books and stories "paranormal" just been a way of getting around having to call them that geeky fantasy and science fiction stuff? What do you think?

  5. You mentioned telekinesis which was the explanation given to me for my niece's irrational behavior when she was 12 years old - moving objects,loud noises in the house etc. It had all the scary feel of the paranormal when it was actually happening, but the scientific explanation made more sense to me at the time. Cool excerpt Sacchi.

  6. Haunted Hearths sounds awesome. I will have to remember to check that out.

    The science geek in me wants to gripe about the frequent association of the paranormal and quantum physics (or the idea of the power of positive thinking and quantum physics). Quantum physics is pretty weird, but there's extensive experimental, reproducible backing for it, which for me really distinguishes it from paranormal phenomena.

    But you're not alone in feeling skeptical about quantum physics. In college, I read the paper published by Einstein and others that strenuously objected to it. But that appears to have been an illustration in the way even great thinkers have their limits. It was embarrassing to read his paper, honestly, because the objections it raised were quite convincingly struck down by others. I wish I remembered the specifics better, but I read a whole series of papers from the time quantum physics was being developed, and, weird as it was, it didn't feel deniable, ultimately.

    Things have gotten weirder over the years, but I know that the initial experiments about observing a particle weren't as spooky as they can sound. The act of measuring a thing changes it slightly, and when dealing with particles as small as quantum physics is dealing with, that change is significant. The initial experiments seemed more physical than telekinesis, etc. But I'll confess that quantum entanglement is pretty freaking weird to me. And it's been years since I really studied this, so I'm far too rusty for comfort.