For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting antimaterialist views (see here for a piece defending woo-driven evolution). I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the supposed creeping incursion of science (“scientism”).
That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that his piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although his piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):
People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and as these events cannot be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm that we cannot understand. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that materialism is far from being all there is to the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of “transhuman signals.”
That sounds bizarre, especially for a fairly distinguished educational journal, but anti-materialism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia. Every opponent of “scientism”, for example, seems to cite Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, as if it were authoritative, never noting that that book was roundly trounced by academics. (Nagel’s book argues that evolution is driven by some non-Goddy teleological and non-material forces that science can’t fathom.)
Kripal begins his essay by recounting two anecdotes (one by Mark Twain) about how people sensed other people’s deaths, and accurate details of how it happened, before they knew about the deaths. Read his piece for the details, which are indeed striking. And Kripal says that these incidents of precognition are common, suggesting that there’s something out there that science can’t explain. (He doesn’t, of course, note the more frequent instances of “precognition” that don’t come true.)
I’ll give a few quotes showing how Kripal proceeds from these anecdotes to his main “X-Files” thesis:
The early-Victorian researchers had it right: They called dreams like the two with which I began “veridical hallucinations,” or hallucinations corresponding to real events.
We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today. We tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through, at least in these extreme cases. Somehow Twain’s dreaming imagination knew that his brother would be dead in a few weeks—it even knew what kind of bouquet would sit on his brother’s breathless chest. Similarly, the wife’s dream-vision knew that her husband had just been killed and where his body lay. In those events, words like “imagined” and “real,” “inside” and “outside,” “subject” and “object,” “mental” and “material” cease to have much meaning. And yet such words name the most basic structures of our knowing.
Or not knowing.
Kripal then discusses why laboratory tests of paranormal phenomena—tests like the “remote viewing” study that didn’t get the million-dollar Randi Prize at last summer’s JREF meeting—invariably fail. The usual excuse among advocates of woo is that the lab somehow ruins the vibes that create ESP, telekinesis, and the like. But Kripal, in the good tradition of these pseudoscientists, has his own explanation:
Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories, the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. No one is in danger or dying. Your neighborhood is not on fire. The professional debunker’s insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile laboratory is little more than a mark of his own ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question. To play by those rules is like trying to study the stars at midday. It is like going to the North Pole to study those legendary beasts called zebras. No doubt just anecdotes.
Context matters. Methods that rely on or favor extreme conditions are employed in science all the time to discover and demonstrate knowledge. As Aldous Huxley pointed out long ago in his own defense of “mystical” experiences suggestive of spirit or soul, we have no reason to deduce that water is composed of two gases glued together by invisible forces. We know this only by exposing water to extreme conditions, by traumatizing it, and then by detecting and measuring the gases with technology that no ordinary person possesses or understands. The situation is eerily analogous with impossible scenarios like those of Twain, the wife, and the Swedish seer. They are generally available only in traumatic situations, when the human being is being “boiled” in illness, stroke, coma, danger, or near-death.
This comparison is unbelievable. Really? Comparing extreme physical conditions imposed on matter in the lab to human trauma? And, of course, there’s no reason why those “messages from the beyond” have to involve trauma, nor does Kripal explain why. And he doesn’t explain why all the great majority of people who die or suffer in the absence of their loved ones don’t send transhuman signals conveying their distress. Do they lack the right kind of transmitter?
In fact, as Kripal suggests above, he thinks “psychics sometimes do get rich”— his response to the frequent question of why psychics eke out a middle-class existence when, with their powers, they could make a killing on the stock market. (Actually, contra Kripal, I don’t know any people who have, at least by using their psychic powers. And why can’t psychics predict other things, like where the Malaysia Airlines jet is? After all, they’re not doing this in the lab.
Kripal’s agenda then becomes clear: he’s sick of those damn scientists telling everyone that matter and energy are all there is, and that, based on its record, materialistic science is likely to be able to explain all natural phenomena. (In principle, of course, since we don’t have the data to explain everything.) That leaves little room for religion.
And then of course there’s the nagging problem of consciousness. This is truly a God of the Gaps for Kripal (though he doesn’t push religion), for he takes science’s failure to explain the hard problem of consciousness to mean that science can never explain it, and that consciousness must therefore reflects some non-material phenomenon that will forever elude science:
In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.
Actually, as I’ve pointed out many times, science does not take “nonmaterial” or spiritual phenomena off the table. It’s perfectly acceptable to test psychic and paranormal phenomena like ESP and spiritual healing, and, in fact, those tests have been done. But they always fail, and so, as Laplace said, we no longer need those explanations. It’s not that we’ve taken non-materialism off the table—it’s simply fallen off the table. Kripal then goes after consciousness as a material phenomenon:
. . . We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.
Note the “as such” there. Nobody says that the phenomenon of consciousness doesn’t exist, merely that we don’t understand the evolutionary and neurological basis of how it works and how it came to be. “As such” is a weasel phrase, meant to obscure the fact that we consider consciousness an “illusion” in the sense that, while it exists, it isn’t what it seems: it isn’t a little immaterial man sitting inside the brain and observing it all. It isn’t a disembodied “I.”
Then comes the whining about marginalization that inevitably accompanies this turf defense:
Humanists have paid a heavy price for their shrinking act. We are more or less ignored now by both the general public and our colleagues in the natural sciences, whose disciplines, of course, make no sense at all outside of universal observations, and who often work from bold cosmic visions, wildly counterintuitive models (think ghostlike multiverses and teleporting particles), and evolutionary spans of time that make our “histories” look insignificant and boring by comparison.
I am aware, of course, that there are signs of life in the humanities. I am thinking in particular of the development of “big history” in historiography and of the new materialisms, vitalisms, and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy, as evident in Thomas Nagel’s recent well-publicized doubts about the adequacy of neo-Darwinian materialism, expressed in his book Mind and Cosmos.
Well Nagel’s book was well-publicized, but not well received. It was a work of philosophy of science, and was criticized heavily by both scientists and philosophers (see above). The people who liked Nagel’s message that There Is More Than Materialism were the theologians and the humanists who feel that science is stepping on their toes. I doubt that the “vitalisms and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy” have gotten much traction beyond Nagel!
Kripal clearly shows an infection of God-of-the-Gapism, otherwise known as Paley’s Syndrome. Note his conclusion that what science hasn’t explained is what it cannot explain (my emphasis):
After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, as far as we can tell, this presence is sui generis. It is its own thing. We know of nothing else like it in the universe, and anything we might know later we will know only through this same consciousness. Many want to claim the exact opposite, that consciousness is not its own thing, is reducible to warm, wet tissue and brainhood. But no one has come close to showing how that might work. Probably because it doesn’t.
Why is he so sure, given that many things that people once considered unexplainable have now been explained by science? What if we’re able to construct a computer or robot that is conscious? Why is Kripal so sure that’s impossible? I’ll tell you why: because he’s not only religious, but a humanities professor harboring great anxiety that science will shrink his kingdom.
Finally, Kripal uses David Eagleman’s example of a Bushman finding a transistor radio, and, fiddling with the wires, decides that the voices it emanates come from some of the circuits, because when those circuits are disconnected, the voices go away. (This reminds me of the paternalistic movie “The Gods Must be Crazy“, also involving the Bushmen—who, by the way, are usually called the San). How can that individual possibly imagine the presence of radio stations, distant cities, and civilizations? It is beyond his ken.
So, says Kripal, our consciousness is like that radio: it receives messages whose source is likewise beyond our ken. Those messages are “transhuman”: beyond the material domain—and sometimes coming from the dead.
William James, Henri Bergson, and Aldous Huxley all argued the same long before Eagleman. Bergson even used the same radio analogy. This is where the historian of religions—this one, anyway—steps in. There are, after all, countless other clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.
[The radio model] puts back on the table much of the evidence that we have taken off as impossible or nonexistent (all that Platonic stuff about the human spirit). In this same generous, symmetrical spirit, it is not that materialism is wrong. It is that it is half-right.
Such a radio model certainly has no problem understanding how Mark Twain could have known about his brother’s imminent funeral, why a wife could know about her husband’s distant car wreck, or why a Swedish scientist could track a fire 50 miles away. The mind can know things distant in space and time because it is not limited to space or time. Mind is not “in” the radio or brain box. The payoff here is immense: The impossible suddenly becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes predictable.
What we have been doing for the past few centuries is studying the construction and workings of the physical radio. But the radio was built for the radio signal (and vice versa). How can we understand the one without the other? It is time to come to terms with both. It is time to invite Plato back to the table—to restore the humanities to consciousness. The rest will follow.
I am baffled why our lack of understanding of consciousness means that we will never be able to explain it in material terms. The whole history of science suggests otherwise. Most of us are now determinists about the brain: what feel like libertarian decisions made by a dualistic “ghost” in our brain are illusions: those “decisions” are made in our unconscious by factors we don’t understand. (I’m ignoring the argument about whether that determinism is compatible with any notion of “free will.”) New neurological experiments show that our decisions can be made some seconds before we’re conscious of having made them. Other experiments show that we can either impart a false sense of volition to people through psychological experiments, or remove a sense of volition even when subjects are behaving “willfully.” Experiments on the brain show that we can affect human emotions or behavior through simple mechanical or chemical interventions.
In other words, the materialistic methods of science are slowly showing us that our sense of being “free agents” is an illusion. We do possess that sense, but we don’t have the ability to choose other than what we did. Our sense of dualistic free will is an illusion; it is a real sense, but it is not what it seems.
Why, then, should our sense of consciousness be otherwise? We’ve expelled the Ghost of Dualistic Will from science, and the Ghost of Consciousness is next in line.
I will believe Kripal’s adherence to “transhuman signals” when we’re able to confirm them as repeatable phenomena—after all, I don’t completely rule out the supernatural—rather than as erratic anecdotes.
What’s clear is that consciousness is the new creationism. Like creationism, it was once something explicable, at least to a certain mindset, only by invoking God But all signs are that consciousness will go the way of creationism: a vestigial remnant of our religious past.