The Psychic Octopus is a Fraud

Many people believe that supernatural forces exist that can be controlled to help them shape their lives and the lives of others. Since time immemorial, shamans have been employed by the members of their community to control or appease these otherworldly forces in order to remove chaos and unpredictability from their lives by predicting the future.

Following Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction, which states that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, magic has all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Technology is so advanced that almost nothing seems magical any more. The world has, in Max Weber’s words, been disenchanted. One area of the ancient mystical arts is, however, still open to ‘real’ magic.

Man’s final frontier is not space, as Gene Roddenberry famously wrote. The final frontier of human intellectual pursuit is the mind. Our minds are practically infinitely complex and science has only started to make some small inroads into a full understanding how we function.

This leaves lots of space for a belief in mentalism, the final frontier of magic. Many people believe that so called mediums such as Uri Geller and John Edward actually have supernatural powers. Some even believe that self-confessed deceivers, such as Derren Brown has magical powers. His material is so strong that they don’t believe he uses magic tricks and think that he just does not want to admit to his powers.

Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called "octopus oracle" predicts Spain's 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain.            REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)

Two year-old octopus Paul, the so-called “octopus oracle” predicts Spain’s 2010 soccer World Cup final victory over The Netherlands by choosing a mussel, from a glass box decorated with the Spanish national flag instead of a glass box with the Dutch flag, at the Sea Life Aquarium in the western German city of Oberhausen July 9, 2010. The octopus has became a media star after correctly picking all six German World Cup results including their first-round defeat against Serbia and their semi-final defeat against Spain. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY – Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP ANIMALS SOCIETY)

The latest star in mentalism is a psychic Octopus with the unassuming name Paul. He has been used to ‘predict’ the outcome of football games in the recent FIFA World Cup and the European Championships two years ago. Paul has made twelve verifiable predictions, of which only two were incorrect. The odds for that to occur by change are remote.

Logic dictates that the psychic octopus is a fraud. But he is an octopus, how can he be a fraud? I am quite certain that he has not read 13 Steps to Mentalism nor that he has a Swami Gimmick on one of his eight tentacles.

Octopodes are known to be quite intelligent, but making repeated accurate predictions goes beyond intelligence. One aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that we would not have been discussing Paul had he been wrong more often. The most likely method employed here is that his minders are good at predicting the results and somehow coax Paul to prefer one side over the other. Using animals to predict the future is not new, but this traditionally involves their entrails.

The method to achieve this mystery is much less interesting than the fact that the whole world is talking about the seeming supernatural abilities of this cephalopod mollusk. Even though we are rational beings that do not want to believe in supernatural influences, we all want to believe that there might be some order to the unpredictable nature of the world after all.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.