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Five Sigma (You Are Not Going to Believe This) - Musings and Meditations

Updated: May 24

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”


"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

Galileo Galilei

"Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think."

Werner Heisenberg

"If you thought that science was certain - well, that is just an error on your part."

Richard P. Feynman

“All descriptions of reality are only temporary hypotheses”

Siddharta Gautama (Buddha)

Earth seen from the Apollo 17 mission, December 16, 1972. 

Dear readers and followers of A Biosphere Project,

This musing has gotten a bit longer than usual, so I've provided it with an audio version like the longer blog posts, read by myself. I've kept this post as short as possible, but this musing gets to the heart of what I want to work on in the coming years, so a minimum of clarification was necessary, even if it's still just an introduction (a pretty exciting one though). The ideas in this musing may be completely new to many of you; however, I would suggest you try to explore these ideas with a minimum of open-mindedness. Try to see if and how these ideas resonate with your experience. At the bottom of this post you will find some videos that I do recommend - don't forget to watch them if the content of this musing interests you.

The audio version of this musing

Surely the question burning on everyone's lips right now is, “what is five sigma?

A code word? A secret sign? The title of a spy novel or a science fiction movie?

Well, it certainly has to do with science, not so much with fiction however.

Let me take a little detour to arrive at the meaning of five sigma.

It is an exciting thing though, once you understand what it is and what it means.

The scientifically inclined among you probably know what five sigma means, and also know how important that term is in the scientific world.

And this musing is fundamentally about the scientific method, about what we collectively believe, and how that collective belief is often not really based on what the scientific method tells us. But I'll keep it as short as possible, I promise. Because from there we can go back to musing about many other things, because the concept of five sigma opens up a kind of box of pandora.  So for now a brief introduction.

In last week's musing, I talked about Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo astronaut who, on the way back to Earth from the Moon, had an experience of “Samãdhi,” or an extremely intense experience of the oneness of everything and the merging of human consciousness with the universe and with a higher consciousness.

Samãdhi is seen in Eastern worldview as a form of ultimate insight that transcends the mental and cannot be expressed in words. It is fundamentally a mystical experience.

Mitchell is not the only astronaut who had a strong mystical experience, and of course there are countless people who have never been in space but have had mystical experiences. It is also one of the possible experiences in advanced forms of meditation. I will talk about the nature of the mystical experience another time, but for now it is important to know that Samãdhi thus brings about a kind of experience of merging with all-that-is, and a sense of universal awareness that far transcends individual consciousness.

I probably don't need to tell you that this kind of experience, and the concept of mysticism in general, is not held in very high regard in our modern secular society, and certainly not in the scientific world. In general, you can say that those kinds of experiences are considered to be an illusion, self-deception, or a state of delusion due to well-defined electrochemical activity in the brain. In our current mechanistic and reductionist worldview, there is no place for an experience that suggests a fundamental unity in the universe, or a level of awareness that does not arise from nor is limited by individual consciousness.

Edgar Mitchell was a scientist, a rational and pragmatic test pilot, an astronaut with two feet firmly on the ground (pun not intended but accepted in gratitude). Like most astronauts he was not exactly the “spaced-out type”. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

But Mitchell couldn't simply deny or forget this experience either, and felt how life-changing and profound the shift in perspective that resulted from that was.

So after his return from the Apollo 14 mission, during which he became the sixth man ever to set foot on the Moon, Mitchell decided he wanted to learn more about this experience, and about its implications for our understanding of reality and of the phenomenon of consciousness.

For either the experience of Samãdhi is indeed an illusion in our brains, or it is not. If it is not an illusion, then what is going on? Is the connection between our consciousness and what we call the “material world” perhaps not what we usually think? The least a scientist can do in the case of an observation that raises questions about a scientific model is to investigate it with an open mind, and that is exactly what Mitchell did: he founded a scientific institute in 1973 dedicated to the investigation of the phenomenon we call 'consciousness': the Institute Of Noetic Sciences, or IONS.. 

In this short video, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell gives a brief impression of his experience during the return from the Moon.

The founding of an institution devoted to the study of consciousness was not evident back then, and would not be evident even today. Indeed, the ‘C-word' -consciousness- was a taboo in the scientific world for a very long time, and consciousness was considered a phenomenon that did not need to be investigated and was better not even mentioned if you did not want to be a 'party-pooper' within the institution of science. After all, the phenomenon of consciousness is a problem for science: there is ultimately no explanation for it. Nor is it directly observable, or measurable, because it is not a material thing. And science so far has no explanation for why we are conscious, and what consciousness actually is. The generally accepted theory is that consciousness is an illusion resulting from electrochemical activity in the brain. Thus, in that theory, the phenomenon of our consciousness is a “side effect,” an “epiphenomenon,” a consequence of material processes.

But there are a lot of problems with this theory: there is no model that conclusively shows how from material processes an immaterial experience can arise, and what this immaterial experience actually is. The subjective experience consisting of 'qualia' is actually a great mystery. There is an ontological gap between the material world and the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness. Philosopher of science David Chalmers was the first to give that gap a name: 'The Hard Problem of Consciousness.' And since then, that 'hard problem' has only gotten harder, more and more scientists are pointing to that gap between matter and 'qualia,' and evidence is looming that we need to think very differently about the phenomenon of consciousness.

The vast majority of scientists working on neurology and the brain maintain: there is no “hard problem” and we can rest assured: our consciousness is simply produced by the brain. But their main argument is actually, if you really look at it: "because we say so, that's why". The idea that consciousness would be anything other than an epiphenomenon of material processes is a nightmare for the classical science of the materialist paradigm, because in the eyes of many scientists it would collapse whole our model of physics and our understanding of the material world like a house of cards (which, by the way, is not true). The phenomenon of consciousness is an ever-gnawing question mark in our contemporary worldview. But the number of “dissidents” is increasing, and more and more scientists are exploring other avenues of thought. 

Fascinating nine-minute video in which philosopher of science David Chalmers explains what the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ is.

Because one of the problems with the classical view of consciousness as an 'epiphenomenon' is this: the proposition has never been proven.

You heard that right: there has never been any evidence provided through the scientific method that our consciousness is “produced” by our brains.

There is of course abundant evidence of correlation with brain function but not of causation.

I will now take a detour to clarify that difference between correlation and causation.  The comparison with the operation of a television set may be useful.

Imagine a number of people who have never heard of television or radio, and who are unfamiliar with technology in general, seeing a television set in operation for the first time. They note with amazement that moving images appear on the screen, and that sound accompanies that image. The images show people talking and laughing and appearing to be engaged in all sorts of action.

The “researchers” are amazed, and curious, they begin to turn the knobs (let's say it is an older model television, from the 1980s), and amazed to find that by turning the knobs, the picture changes a bit. The color gets brighter or duller, or the sound gets stronger or weaker. If they turn a certain knob, the image changes completely, and suddenly there are completely different people seen doing completely different things, or there are suddenly animals or landscapes on the screen.

Now the “researchers” are really curious, and carefully they open the device. Full of wonder, they behold a tangle of wires, electronic circuit boards, and so on. Things they obviously cannot identify as such, they just see a tangle of incomprehensible parts that don't seem to make sense. They fiddle curiously and also a little anxiously with all these things, with the circuits on the circuit boards, with the wiring, and find that the picture changes: it starts to flicker, the color drops out, or only “snow” or electronic noise remains on the screen.

To these people who slightly bewildered examine this strange device, it is clear: the image they see on the screen is caused by all those strange wires and incomprehensible things inside that television set. And by “fiddling” a little more specifically with all those wires and components, they gradually come to understand which part of the wiring and other components has to do with which aspect of color or sound in the image on the screen.

One of the “researchers” accidentally drops the television set; the whole device breaks open. The picture disappears: nothing left to see. The final 'proof' for the researchers: that strange device caused that moving picture. Now that the device is broken, that image also no longer exists.

Of course, from our knowledge of the concept of 'television,' we can immediately see where the cognitive error of our "researchers" lies, and we know that the image is not produced by the television set. The image comes from somewhere else, and is 'picked up', translated and filtered by the television set. All those wires and parts are indeed needed to translate that signal into something understandable to us: the images on the screen of the set. The signal is still there anyway, all around us, even when the television set is off or broken.

So there is a confusion of levels, an ontological mistake.

The image is on another level, as electromagnetic radiation, and is picked up by the television set and converted into image and sound intelligible to us. The radiation by itself could never have any meaning for us, we need the television set to experience something of the meaning encoded in the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum picked up by the television set.

So you can say that there is a correlation between the television set and the images, but not causation: the TV set is not the source of the images or the sound.

So concerning our consciousness, there is abundant evidence of correlation with the workings of the brain; however, there is no evidence of causation. Even though the vast majority of scientists who study the brain claim that there is - their arguments are invariably based on some form of inference (deducing from other knowledge), never on experimental physical evidence.

In itself it is not a problem to posit a model without empirical evidence -that is how most scientific theories begin. But it does become a problem when that model fails to explain scientific observations that do not fit that model, and that is the problem with our current model regarding the phenomenon of consciousness.

For now, however, I want to talk about a few things that have been proven about that phenomenon called consciousness, and now things get weird and exciting.

Some of those particular aspects of the phenomenon of consciousness, have been proven experimentally during the five decades of research by the IONS.

IONS is not the only institute conducting research on the phenomenon of consciousness, and other institutions exploring new avenues of thought in this field include the Essentia Foundation, founded by Dutch philosopher, computer theorist and systems thinker Bernardo Kastrup, and the László Institute for New Paradigm Research, founded by Ervin László, the father of systems philosophy, co-author of the Club of Rome report, and active for decades in important positions for the United Nations.

But the IONS, more than those other institutions, has been active not only in the theoretical field, but also through hundreds of experiments repeated around the world with hundreds of people participating. The IONS also collaborates with many other scientists working in this field, including Bernard Carr, leading mathematician, astronomer and cosmologist; and Stuart Hameroff, one of the foremost researchers in the field of consciousness who also collaborates with Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose.

And hear hear: many of those studies by the IONS have produced results of five sigma.

It took a detour to get to the heart of the matter but now we are there: five sigma is, in fact, a term used to express how reliable the results of a given scientific study are. The sigma scale starts-as might be expected- at one sigma, and the higher you get on the sigma scale, the more reliable the results are.

Originally developed in the industrial world to detect errors in manufacturing processes, the sigma scale was adopted by the scientific world to indicate how reliable the results of a given scientific test are.

And to give you an idea, five sigma is Nobel Prize material. The recognition of the discovery of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle long predicted but very difficult to detect, and the subsequent Nobel Prize for Peter W. Higgs who discovered that particle, was based on five-sigma results.

With a five sigma result, the probability of the observations being wrong is one in many many millions.

The website of CERN in Geneva puts it this way: “Five sigma is considered the ‘gold standard’ in particle physics because it guarantees an extremely low probability of a claim being false.

Well then, in research by IONS (as well as by others), quite a few things have been demonstrated with five sigma results, in some cases even up to eight sigma, which of course is even more extraordinary. At eight sigma you can say: this is as real as the apple falling to the ground near where Newton was sitting under the tree.

So what is it that has been demonstrated through the scientific method about the phenomenon we call “consciousness,” with results of five to eight sigma? Hold on to your hat.

  • Telepathy is a real existing phenomenon.

  • Consciousness extends in time: precognition, or knowing in advance of events, is a real existing phenomenon.

  • Consciousness can directly affect what we call the “material” world: psychokinesis is a real existing phenomenon.

  • Consciousness is non-local, meaning it is outside of time and space. Consciousness can be present anywhere without the limitation posed by the general theory of relativity regarding the transmission of information. 'Remote viewing' is a real existing phenomenon.

I already said so in the title of this musing: you're not going to believe it. Or maybe you do, if you yourself were already interested in the phenomenon of consciousness you may have already done your own research into the history of what we think about that phenomenon, and you already have an idea of “the hard problem” and alternative views of the phenomenon of consciousness.

Why wouldn't you believe what these research findings tell you?

Well, you might not believe it because most people in our secular Western modernity believe firmly in the postulate that I quoted first and that we like to assume is based on scientific evidence: that our consciousness is an epiphenomenon or side effect of brain activity. And in that model, of course, there is no place for woo-woo stuff like telepathy, precognition or psychokinesis. But so that model of consciousness as an epiphenomenon is a model for which there is no evidence, let alone five to eight sigma evidence as there is for some of the things I just cited. There is only evidence of correlation with brain activity, not causation.

So why are we collectively so firmly believing a postulate for which there is no evidence? If we are so convinced that what we believe is “scientific”? And if what is stated above is all so clearly proven, why don't we all know that? Why isn't that front-page news?

That will be material for many future musings and blog posts. What it comes down to is the power of the narrative in which we collectively live, and the need for certainty and clinging to old beliefs. Something the scientific community is anything but immune to.

I already talked about this unwillingness of the scientific community to admit certain new insights and research results in the essay “A Selfie of Planet Earth,” in which I mentioned how John Maddox, editor-in-chief of the authoritative journal “Nature,” wrote that the books of renowned biologist Rupert Sheldrake should be burned because they are “heresy”. Conformism, conservatism, fear of the consequences of unorthodox views, fear for one's career: it is all so human and so present in the functioning of the institution of science. These dynamics, by the way, are also at work in academia, the media, and our education system. These human limitations are one of the reasons why our society as a whole has many characteristics of an 'echo chamber', in which truly new insights are often excluded until resisting them becomes untenable.  As far as science is concerned, Wikipedia is another example: it is a bastion of protection of the dominant worldview, and will treat information that questions that worldview with extreme skepticism and incomplete refutations. One can argue, in my opinion, that Wikipedia only has some degree of reliability regarding information about people, facts and events from long ago. On current economic, scientific, philosophical aspects of human cognition and other subjects, it is fair to say that Wikipedia helps “guard the fortress,” along with official channels of scientific authority like Nature.

This phenomenon of wanting to protect whatever view of the world is dominant in any given period  at all costs has been described and examined in detail in the standard work of the philosophy of science: 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions', by Thomas S. Kuhn (University of Chicago Press, 1962). More on that another time.

The scientific method, applied over five decades of rigorous scientific research, has produced convincing evidence that human consciousness is non-local and extending through time. The experience Edgar Mitchell had on the journey back to Earth, the experience reported by so many yogis and experienced meditators, the experience central to the Eastern philosophy of life, the experience of merging with all-that-is, thus takes on a new dimension, and begins to raise new questions. What if the experience of Samãdhi, the experience of being one with all-that-is, is not an illusion but an accurate experience of the relationship of our consciousness to what we call “reality”? A relationship that can be the subject of scientific inquiry? What if the mystics of centuries or millennia ago had an intuitive insight that can be the subject of scientific inquiry today?

If our consciousness is not an illusion in our brain, then what is it?  Is there a theory, or a model, that could explain the experience of Samådhi or phenomena such as telepathy or precognition? Can we devise a new model in which consciousness is approached differently in terms of ontology (theory of being) and epistemology (theory of knowing or knowledge)? Are phenomena we now consider “paranormal” or “supernatural” an aspect of nature that we do not now understand, as electricity was in the Middle Ages?

Yes indeed, there are several other models in which the phenomenon of consciousness occupies a very different place in the 'order' of things. And there have been many leading scientists who have been arguing for a long time that we need to think about consciousness very differently. And the new models all have to do with understanding the phenomenon of consciousness as a non-local quantum phenomenon. For example, virtually all the 'fathers' of quantum physics were convinced that consciousness is fundamental, not a side effect of material processes. Actually, all those 'fathers' of quantum physics (Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Max Planck,...) could be called mystics, and would probably have found Edgar Mitchell's experience quite understandable.

What those experiences that seem “supernatural” tell us, and what the great mystics of all times have told us, at some point maybe will be translated into models that are scientifically verifiable and that can produce a very different picture of what we consider “real”.

But that is for other musings and meditations.

I suspect you might still not believe what I just told you. That astronaut guy Edgar Mitchell, he may have gone a little bonkers out there in space. That Dean Radin, I don't know the fellow, for all I know he could be a quack. That IONS, never heard of, could well be a club of “pseudo-scientists”.

So next week, I will gladly make use of the phenomenon of “credibility by association”: I will have Bernard Carr do the musing in my place.

Bernard Carr is a distinguished astronomer, physicist and cosmologist. He was also a student and friend of the late Stephen Hawking. Hence my mention  of “credibility by association”. As it happens, we have created a kind of “priesthood” when it comes to scientific credibility, something I also talked about in the essay 'A Selfie of Planet Earth'.

But all his life Bernard Carr has also been particularly interested in all the abovementioned phenomena of telepathy, psychokinesis, precognition, and other phenomena that we still tend to  consider “supernatural”. And like Edgar Mitchell, Dean Radin, and many other scientists, Bernard Carr believes that these phenomena are indeed real, and that we need to expand our understanding of physics to accommodate these phenomena.

An opinion that, admittedly, his friend Stephen Hawking would have had a hard time with. Hawking was not really open to those kinds of ideas, although a certain shift seemed to begin to emerge toward the end of his life.

I know, this musing has become quite long, hence also the audio version, but next week I will keep my own musing short, and will mainly let Bernard Carr do the musing in an extraordinary interview.

To wrap up this musing, I leave the stage to Dean Radin and Edgar Mitchell.

In a lecture as part of a 2016 conference on the study of consciousness at the University of Arizona, co-organized by Stuart Hameroff, Dean Radin reports on one of the high-profile studies by the IONS. In this study, repeated many times with hundreds of subjects from around the world, it was proven (with five sigma results) that human consciousness can directly influence the behavior of photons and electrons in experimental settings. A fascinating lecture, which I had already shared in the blog post ‘Science and the Emerging New Paradigm’.

In a second video, Dean Radin talks in a lecture for the 'Google Tech Talks' about the results of the reseach at IONS, and about the taboo in the scientific community regarding PSI phenomena.

I will return to Dean Radin and the IONS in other posts later, and report on some other research findings that are equally startling.

Edgar Mitchell summarizes some of the extraordinary new visions emerging regarding our understanding of consciousness in a short video from the Kennedy Space Center.

All of this is to be continued in A Biosphere Project, as this new understanding regarding the phenomenon of 'consciousness' may be of great importance in arriving at a new paradigm regarding our place in our environment, which is the essence of 'ecology'. Mankind likes to define itself by the nature of our consciousness, but it looks like we’ve gotten it all wrong up until now. Our behavior in our environment is largely determined by what we think about ourselves and about our consciousness, and the relationship between us and our environment is currently untenable. Until we develop a better understanding of who or what we actually are, there is little chance that we are going to be able to take our place in the whole in a way that will benefit the whole.

So much for this musing, 

Thanks for reading, and until the next episode,

All the best to you,


Fascinating lecture by Dean Radin at a conference on the science of consciousness, University of Arizona, 2016. He explains in detail the experiment that proved that consciousness can influence the 'material world'. 

Equally fascinating talk by Dean Radin for Google Tech Talks on the results of the research by IONS and the taboo in the scientific community surrounding research into PSI phenomena .

In this short video, astronaut Edgar Mitchell sums up some of the starting new visions that are being explored in the study of consciousness.



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