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.

The Truth About Pi

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

Smoking sheesha in Luxor, Egypt

My idea of having a great time: smoking sheesha in Egypt, wearing my favourite T-shirt ( The print on the shirt consists of the first 4,493 digits of the number Pi in the shape of the symbol itself. In my view, the number Pi, not the number 42 as some have proposed, symbolises the ultimate truth of the universe. Let me explain why.

On the way back from Egypt I watched The Oxford Murders. In this movie, the question whether mathematics is the underlying truth of the world is discussed between the two main characters. Martin, a student played by Elijah Wood, said:

“Things are organised following a model, a scheme, a logical series. Even the tiny snowflake includes a numerical basis in its structure. Therefore, if we discover the secret meaning of numbers, we will know the secret meaning of reality.”

But is Martin correct? Can all philosophical questions and truths be expressed in mathematics? Will we eventually calculate our way out of ethical dilemma’s? Can we improve our understanding of Shakespeare by expressing his prose in formal language?

To be or not to be

I tend to agree with Professor Martin Seldon, played by John Hurt in the same movie:

“Since man is incapable of reconciling mind and matter he turns to confer some kind of entity on ideas because he can not bear the notion that the purely abstract only exists in our brain.”

With this in mind, why does the number Pi reflects the ultimate truth about the universe?

Pi is an irrational and transcendental number and the digits of which it is composed comprise an infinite array of random numbers. Even after calculating billions of digits, there does not seem to be any pattern in the arrangement of the digits. It is this lack of any pattern, the absence of logic, that illustrates the structure of the universe itself.

Pi is an artificial structure of our mind, not something existing in reality. Nature doesn’t care about perimeters and diameters, although it might seem that the ubiquitous nature of Pi seems to suggest differently.

Pi is an important number in physics and is included in many formulas. This implies to me that there is something inherently random in the structure of reality.

However, we perceive our environment in discrete terms. Common sense mathematics does not include irrational numbers such as Pi. We think in whole numbers and fractions. This is reflected in the fact that in ancient cultures, Pi was perceived to be a fracture, such as 22/7. This is the value that I use in my own calculations as it is accurate enough for almost all computations.

But the number Pi is ubiquitous in mathematics and physics. We rely on an irrational numbers such as Pi and e in much of our modeling of reality. What does this say about the structure of reality? I do not have an answer on this, but for me, the existence of irrational numbers shows the great divide between common sense and our scientific description of the world.

Schools of Thought: Anglosaxon versus Continental Philosophy

I have now completed 75% of my undergraduate and can almost see light at the end of the tunnel. I started studying in 1996 at the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands, where I completed my first year.

I recently re-read some of the course material, as I was working on some Wikipedia articles. Reading the Dutch philosophy course notes, I realised the great difference between continental and analytical (Anglosaxon) philosophy.

The Dutch material is all about hermeneutics and refers to philosophers such as Friedrich Schleieremacher and Heidegger.

The Australian course is much more analytical and I am supposed to ‘untangle’ arguments in order to bit by bit analyse the text. There is no reference to the ‘melting of horizons’ of Gadamer or anything about the historicity of philosophy. Ancient philosophers are treated in exactly the same manner as contemporary texts.

The rational approach is I think sometimes too simplistic. By following strict logical rules you can only describe certain truths, those that form part of the logical tree that grows from the axioms one has chosen.

But, it can be argued that there are truths which do not form part of that tree, ones that can not be described by logic. The analytical philosopher would probably try to resolve this problem by introducing another axiom, so the tree covers more aspects. Kurt Gödel has shown that in number theory, it is impossible to find an axiomatic system that can derive all known truths.

Although his evidence is only applicable to number theory, many have argued that it should also be applied to all other forms of axiomatic system.

Philosophy is not a science, it is not a rational program aiming to unearth eternal truth by thinking very very hard. Philosophy is an art-form, a language game to describe the world. The more I study philosophy in the analytical tradition the more I realise that I am a continental thinker. I am the wolf in the sheep’s-pen.

Only if one thinks more crazy than the philosophers can you solve their problems (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1949).

The Philosopher and the Mystic: On the role of logic as the pathway to truth

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

Academic philosophy and mysticism do not go hand in hand. One of the first subjects in any philosophy course in the analytic tradition is logic. Students are taught the strict rules of reasoning, as applied by philosophers for about 2500 years. Students are also taught that every philosophy must comply with these rules.

These strict rules of logic are many times at odds with what mysticism teaches us. One of the foundation rules of ‘proper thinking’ is that there can be no internal contradiction, e.g. either A or not A—there is no third option. Mysticism, however, unites the dualism of opposites into a wider embrace, a higher truth.

As I wrote earlier, academic philosophy is forced through the politics of funding by governments to stick to the accepted rules of scientific logic. Mystical philosophy can therefore not be taught at university level, besides in neutral, non engaging, exsanguinated way.

One of the questions to be asked is whether philosophy can be merged with mysticism. Can the philosopher and the mystic be one and the same person?

In classical Indian Philosophy, tension between religion and reason is not as pronounced as in the West. Reason and religion were in a constant debate, which has led to a philosophy with clear strands of mysticism.

Philosophy and mysticism have been separated in the Western tradition since the beginning of philosophy. Early Greek philosophy contained some kernels of mystic thought, but slowly but surely, mysticism has disappeared from the philosophical landscape.

Can a truly mystical philosophy exist? The problem with mysticism is that anything seems to be allowed and every utterance can be true, as there are no rules concerning how to determine what is true and what is not. But maybe, the strict rules of logic accept to little as true knowledge? Many people find strength and inspiration in the mystic realm. The big question to be asked next is what is truth anyway? Isn’t truth just whatever complies with basically arbitrary rules?