Are psychic powers a trojan horse from the world of magic that have snuck into science fiction? Psychic powers are almost indistinguishable from wish fulfilment in aggregate and only take on a resemblance of speculation about reality when codified into subtypes with Graeco-Latin names with sciency connotations.
But psychic powers aren’t going to vanish from science fiction any time soon. Doctor Who has psychic paper and telepathic circuits in their TARDIS, Star Trek has empaths and telepathic Vulcans, and Star Wars has a conflict between psychic factions as its core mythology. Firefly and Babylon 5 had psychics. Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Le Guin’s Ekumen universe, Asimov’s Foundation series, multiple Philip K Dick works, each contain various beings with mental powers. Science Fiction has a permission note for amazing mental abilities had has used that licence freely.
‘Psionics’ are a core conceit of science fiction in much the same way that faster than light travel is. It is so baked into the history of the genre that a person with amazing mental powers is something the audience for sci-fi just sorts of expects to encounter. Unlike warp-drives et al it is a marker of the strange. When Spock begins a mind meld the incidental music on classic Trek shifts to spooky.
So how can we dress up characters having magical powers amid a supposedly science and technology world?
- Don’t. One step is simply to banish psychic powers to the outer darkness. After all plenty of science fiction doesn’t have psychic powers. True, I can’t think of a major film/TV sci-fi franchise that doesn’t…but surely psychic powers are not a compulsory part of science fiction.
- Don’t dress it up. If we put The Phantom Menace’s midichlorians aside, Star Wars treats the Force as a quasi-religous power operated by space wizards. Force powers look ubiquitous in the Star Wars galaxy but only because we follow force-using characters. The films and adjacent media suggest that ordinary people regard it as either magic or superstition. Even senior members of the Empire military who *know Darth Vader* personally are sceptical right up to the point that ex-Anakin strangles them from a distance. Star Wars rejects scepticism about magic powers and even sympathetic characters who are sceptical are shown to be wrong (e.g. Han Solo). It is a universe of miracles.
- Brains are radios. Telepathy at least makes some sort of sense. After all brains really do use electricity and presumably that electrical activity can be detected from a distance. Brain-computer interfaces are real actual technology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain%E2%80%93computer_interface ). Quite how another brain might pick up remotely another brain’s activity is unclear but there is some merit in the idea that of all the things in the universe that might be able to make sense of brain activity is another brain. Classic Trek’s very limited telepathy requires Spock to physically touch another person’s head. However, even if we imagine Spock’s fingers have some sort of EEG like capability, Spock’s capacity to mind meld with almost anything intelligent pushes even his ring-fenced powers into spooky territory.
- Brains are quantum woo-woo. As I’ve said before, we don’t really have a strong concept of what we mean by ‘intelligence’. We know we can make electro-mechanical devices that can do clever things (i.e. computers) but we don’t know if brains are just a very complex electro-chemical equivalent. Physicist Roger Penrose has argued that our current understanding of physics is insufficient to explain intelligence (I think his argument is weak but it is hard to show the opposite without building a functioning brain from the ground up). So maybe brains are doing something weird at the sub-atomic level…
- Brains tap into the quantum-sub-ether-interdimensional-ultra-force-vortex-thingy. Following on from the above, if brains need extra made-up physics just to do regular stuff like crosswords, arguing with your cat or writing rambling blog-posts, then why can’t brains make use of this whole unknown physics to do other stuff? We can hardly complain about psionics using fictional fundamental forces when phasers, light sabres, force fields, tractor beams, and even robots sort of hovering just a bit off the ground may also rely on unknown physics.
- Minds aren’t brains and brains are just the giant USB cable joining the mental world to your body. Mind-brain dualism has a respectable history in philosophy even if it offends a more materialist view of reality. If your mind is some other kind of thing then maybe minds can interact in some other kind of way. You can call it the psychic plain or you can dress it up in inter-dimensional language but once you go down this route then even faster-than-light telepathic communication begins to make (fictional) sense.
- Ha ha but telekinesis is obvious nonsense. Yeah, it is hard to make telekinesis make any kind of sense except…’Spooky’ version of how brains/minds can exist that rely on special unknown physics have a basic problem. Somehow, a mind that exists in a psychic plain can still make your body do things via your brain…but that necessarily implies that a mind in this other realm of physics can affect change at a macro level in more conventional physics. Voila! Telekinesis is far from spooky but is almost a requirement (at a restricted level) by having minds distinct from brains.
- Reverse Platonism. I’m wandering straight into magic now but at least magic with a veneer of rational philosophical traditions. In a Platonic view of reality, abstractions such as ‘circle’ or ‘good’ are the higher reality and that reality is something we can access through rational, logical inquiry. I can infer the properties of a perfect circle even though our flawed reality can never have such a thing as a perfect circle. But what if I’m really, really smart and spend my life being raised by Vulcans in a Jedi academy that is attached to the Second Foundation base on the ruins of Trantor? Maybe then my mind is just so clever that I can manipulate the higher Platonic reality and affect change in our more mundane reality? Wooooooo! This is the principle underlying wish-fulfilment taken up a few levels. What it fits nicely with is the trope that psychic powers are a product of extreme mental discipline. Train with monks (or Vulcans or the Second Foundation) long enough and your mind becomes so smart you can manipulate reality.
- I thought so hard I just disappeared. A word of caution though. If your mental abilities become to acute, you may accidentally transcend reality and disappear. If you find yourself in that situation then immediately engage with something that will bring your mental powers down. Fox News, lots of beer, might work. Avoid powerful psychoactive substances and sensory deprivation chambers.