Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Encryption Algorithms in Survival Evidence

Academic journal article The Journal of Parapsychology

Encryption Algorithms in Survival Evidence

Article excerpt

The parapsychological literature contains a variety of phenomena suggesting, with various degrees of persuasiveness, that some aspect of the human psyche survives the death of the brain. Among them are apparitions, cases suggestive of reincarnation, dreams, hauntings, mediumship, NDEs (near-death experiences), and OBEs (out-of-body experiences). The very idea of life after death is not free of potential philosophical (as distinct from empirical) problems: Flew (1987), (Geach (1987), and Penelhum (1987) argue that transfer of memories or personality traits are not sufficient to identify some incorporeal entity with some once-living person. Nevertheless, these arguments are far from conclusive, and experiments that shed light on this issue are interesting because of their implications.

One proposed method works as follows. A person picks some phrase (ideally, one that is difficult to guess), makes a record of it in a secure location, and, once he is deceased, attempts (supposing of course that "he" has "survived") to communicate this phrase to someone who is living. Living persons who receive this message are able to compare it to the record and, if it matches (a "hit"), have evidence for some sort of survival of death. A well-known related (but not a sealed-message) attempt was made by Harry Houdini, who tried to get a message to his deceased wife. This method has at least two potential pitfalls: cheating (i.e., the living person discovers the phrase through normal means), or "super-ESP" (clairvoyance of the time when the person was alive and knew the phrase).

Proving the existence of super-ESP is as important, or almost as important, as proving the existence of life-after-death; so the elimination of cheating becomes an important goal in these experiments. Potential solutions involve increasing security around the record of the message (putting it in a safe at a well-known law firm, and so forth), but with the complexity of the scheme, the potential for cheating somewhere along the line increases. Another fatal problem is that once the package is opened to check someone's attempt at the message, the experiment is finished. Several variants of this "sealed message" test have been used.

Thouless (1946-1949) proposed a hand-encryption scheme whereby the original message would be encoded and destroyed. This scheme has the advantage that (1) many attempts at "guessing" the message can be made, and (2) there is no permanent record of the original message itself to serve as a target for ESP by living persons. Stevenson (1968, 1976) attempted to improve on this method by eliminating the need for encrypting the message in favor of a combination padlock scheme.

Computer Cryptography as an Improved Method

I propose an idea that will eliminate the problem of cheating from this sort of experiment and will also improve on several other aspects of the previous two schemes. It is based on the similarity between this problem and the issue of identity authentication in computer science. The key is never to store the message in plain text form, thus avoiding the possibility of cheating. The method depends on the existence of trap-door or one-way algorithms that can be used to encode a message but cannot be reversed. The method works as follows: The original person uses such an algorithm on a computer to encode his phrase into a string (sequence) of symbols, never leaving a record of the original phrase. Then he publishes the encrypted form, along with the algorithm used to encrypt it. Once he is deceased, the only way to obtain a "hit" is to have the message communicated by paranormal means. When someone thinks he has received the message, he simply runs it through the published algorithm, and the result is compared to the published encoded form. If it matches, the message is a 100% hit. Because the original phrase is not written down anywhere, it cannot be used to cheat. The added advantages over Thouless's (1946-1949) method (which likewise avoids the cheating problem) are:

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