Thursday, February 4, 2016


As a boy I was fascinated by claims of paranormal phenomena—mental telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, and the like.  I would spend inordinate amounts of time conducting “experiments” in which I would try to guess the suit of each of the cards in a deck to see if I could score above a chance level.  I apparently lack paranormal powers.  When I was 12 or 13 I recall watching a TV “documentary” concerning a boy about my age who supposedly could make physical objects move just with his mind.  He was accused of various mischievous acts, such as knocking objects off shelves or turning a cupboard upside down.  According to the show, even though the boy was responsible for the paranormal activity, he was doing it subconsciously rather than intentionally.  I was so frightened by the show that I had a hard time falling asleep afterward, concerned that I might inadvertently possess the same paranormal abilities.  Not to worry, as it turned out.

The supposed ability to move physical objects by purely mental processes goes by the term psychokinesis.  If it existed and could be controlled, it might be employed, for example, to affect the fall of the ball in a game of roulette.  There is no objective evidence for such an ability in any setting, of course, just as there is no reliable evidence for any of the other so-called paranormal phenomena.  But, as I explain, psychokinesis is exactly the term to be used in describing the idea of free will.  In short, anyone who believes in free will is arguing for the reality of psychokinesis.

As I have stated before, our nervous systems are made of the same stuff, and operate under the same rules, as everything else in the physical world, that is, they are comprised of atoms and molecules behaving in accordance with the same laws of chemistry and physics to which all matter is subject.  If we consider any other physical activity outside of our nervous systems, such as other chemical reactions, or even in other biological systems including our own, e.g., the digestive process, we never consider that such reactions are controlled by anything other than those chemical and physical laws.  Our understanding of the rest of the world is premised on the idea that it is operating in accordance with those laws of nature.  

Moreover, we understand the mechanics of voluntary biological processes as well, such as the process by which an individual can pick up a glass of water.  That act requires a complex and coordinated contraction of various muscles in the individual’s arm.  Those contractions, in turn, are caused by a series of neurochemical reactions ending in the nerves activating those muscle fibers but beginning in the brain.  All of these events are purely physical and are not subject to whim or the action of some sort of nonphysical process that intervenes.  Rather, they are understood as a sequence of cause and effect events that proceed in accordance with the same physical laws that govern all of the other other physical events that we observe.  The process gets complicated in the brain, but there is little question that the brain is comprised of the same stuff as everything else and is therefore governed by the same laws of chemistry and physics.

Unless, that is, one accepts the notion that there is some sort of nonphysical agency—call it the self or the will—that can step in and at some point in the process override the laws of nature that otherwise serve as a continuous chain of cause and effect.  This notion is exactly what is meant by the term psychokinesis.  The concept of free will supposes the same “mental” phenomenon operating on our own biology, overriding the purely physical brain and nervous system processes that would otherwise result in behavior.   Most rational people dismiss the existence of psychokinesis on a macro level.  Why should it exist on a molecular one?

© 2015 John M. Phillips

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