Telepathy

I am almost finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation. Despite the fact that Asimov is by far my favorite SF author, I wonder whether FtF is actually science fiction? The reader might ask if I am crazy as the Foundation series is set in space and in the future. However, I do not consider these two condition sufficient to consider a work of fiction to be science fiction.

There is nothing which would prevent one from writing a fantasy story set in the future and in fact many of such fantasy does exist. Additionally an author might choose to use “magic” to allow space travel in his story. For instance Robert Jordan has stated that in his Wheel of Time universe, the One Power could be used for both interplanetary and interstellar travel.

What makes the difference between science fiction and fantasy is science. But what constitutes science in fiction?  And how do we differentiate (fictional) science from magic?

I propose the following approach. The starting point should be real world science and some authors stick the real world science, which is the cornerstone of mundane science fiction. However, many SF authors do not limit themselves to known science, as it is unlikely there will be no further scientific progress in the future.

Fictional science could be developed as an extrapolation of real world science (for instance particles from outside the standard model) or a completely new field. In the latter case the new science should not utterly contradict RWS or the author should be able to provide a plausible account why RWS was wrong.

Let’s return to Forward the Foundation. There are three issues on which this work might fail as “science fiction”:

  • FTL space travel
  • Psycho-history
  • Telepathy

As suggested by the title of this article I want to have a closer look at the last issue. Before I continue I want to give a few quick remarks about psycho-history and FTL travel.

The way Asimov presents psycho-history it seems to be a logical extension of current social science combined with the mathematical methods of statistical physics. So psycho-history could be considered as a plausible fictional science and hence proper science fiction.

In my opinion FTL travel has always been the weakest point of modern SF. Without FTL interstellar societies such as galactic empires are impossible. Different authors have taken different approaches to solve the problem of FTL. Some simply suppose that FTL will be possible in the far future, not quite convincing but forgivable at times. Others turn to highly speculative interpretations of general relativity such as Alcubierre drives or wormholes.

Asimov introduces “hyperspace” as the means to achieve FTL travel throughout his oeuvre. Hyperspace appears to involve the existence of additional dimensions. Some scientists have postulated the existence of other dimension beyond those of space and time, most notably in string theory. Nevertheless these are still highly speculative, though there are not (yet) ruled out. So I am inclined to give Asimov the benefit of the doubt here.

So I will turn to the issue of telepathy. In the fourth and last part of Forward the Foundation telepathy becomes an import part of the story. However, telepathy is something many, if not most, people feel as unscientific. Indeed many scientists are skeptical about this idea (you could win a million USD if you can prove the existence of telepathy).

Nevertheless we could seriously wonder whether telepathy could be possible. I would argue that telepathy is one of the more plausible “paranormal” abilities. It would be helpful to define telepathy, before continuing. According to Wikipedia, telepathy is:

the purported transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.

The first part of this definition is quite clear, the second part is more complicated. What are the known sensory channels? And what is “physical interaction”? I mean with scientific progress unknown things become known. The word “telepathy” was coined in 1882, while radio waves were not discovered until 1887. Would radiopathy, i.e. interpersonal communication using radio waves, be a type telepathy?

If we accept radiopathy as telepathy, then we have a possible method of telepathy. At least in theory radiopathy is possible and hence we could accept that some humans might develop the ability to receive and transmit radio waves due to a genetic mutation. In addition the human brain produces electromagnetic fields and we can measure those.

According to scientists at the University of Bristol bumblebees are capable to sense the (weak) electric fields of flowers. So we have a plausible bio-physical base for mind reading, which is only half of telepathy. Asimov’s description of telepathy also include the ability to manipulate others mind in addition to just read them. This requires the ability to send, but if you can receive electromagnetic waves, you can send them. The limiting factor is power, for receiving no power is required but it is for emitting.

From Asimov’s description we can derive that a person with telepathic abilities needs to be in close vicinity of its target. This supports the electromagnetic theory of telepathy. Of course, there is the possibility that Asimovian telepathy involves a yet unknown force. However, without evidence to the contrary, I will contend that telepathy in the Foundation universe is based on electromagnetic or radio waves.

My conclusion is that telepathy as presented in Forward the Foundation is a plausible extension of real world science and this novel should count as science fiction.

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