Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Paranormal Equation – James Stein ***

I  really wish I had my hands on a copy of mathematician’s James Stein’s book Paranormal Equation when I wrote my own Extra Sensory, as there is some fascinating material here taking a whole new slant on the supernatural that I have never seen before. It wouldn’t be too much to say that Stein has developed a whole new theoretical approach for dealing with supernatural phenomena (with a proviso), based on his mathematical background – and that is quite a feat.
Having said it would be useful, the two books are actually addressing almost unconnected areas of thought – ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ as Stephen Jay Gould might have put it. I deal with aspects of the paranormal that could have a natural explanation – I don’t cover the supernatural at all – where Stein is focussed on events that don’t have a possible natural explanation.
After giving us a fair amount of information as to how most paranormal events can’t happen, Stein provides a loophole with a fascinating conjecture that I’ve never seen before. Since the mid twentieth century, mathematicians have been aware that there are some propositions in the mathematical system we use that can never be proved. We think some of them are true, but it has been proved that they can’t be proved. This is a bit like a mathematical version of the logical knots that arise from dealing with the statement ‘This statement is false.’
The great Alan Turing came up with a similar concept to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for computing – but Stein goes further. He considers the possibility that in an infinite universe (something that may well be the case), there could be a similar concept in physics. There could be phenomena that it is impossible for physics to explain. Ever. And these arguably would be supernatural by definition. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this makes telepathy, say, possible – and Stein doesn’t say this. But it is a truly fascinating bit of thinking on his part.
There are two reasons that this important book doesn’t have more stars. One is that much of it is more about the philosophy of science than science itself, and some of the content is as airy and difficult to pin down as a paranormal event. The other is that it isn’t the easiest of books to read, although it is well worth the effort. (And one or two of the facts quoted outside the main thrust of the book are a little iffy. Stein comments ‘It is certainly true that humans generally use about 10 percent of the brain.’ This is a myth so well established it has its own Wikipedia page.)
However this is without doubt the most original and fascinating book I have read about supernatural phenomena in many years and a highly recommended work for anyone who wants to take an open-minded scientific view of the paranormal.
Review by Brian Clegg

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