Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over a hundred published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He's currently the director of the Transpersonal Psychology Program at Akamai University. He has also written a number of self-published books, including Numberama: Recreational Number Theory In The School System, Modern Religions: An Experiential Analysis And Exposé, and The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. Elliot enjoys playing the piano, tennis, and ballroom dancing, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been following the ongoing Integral World evolution debate through all the participants in the debate, inclusive of the Lanes' various articles that have spurred on the controversy, which has stimulated responses from Astin, Visser, Smith, and Freund . The notion of consciousness has recently gotten some attention in the debate, and I would like to include the related notion of psychic phenomena . Now I am fully aware that bringing in the notion of psychic phenomena will be most unwelcome by a number of people on this site, but I am by no means making any definitive statements about its veracity. The debate over the veracity of psychic phenomena has been going on for over a hundred years, and for the interested reader I recommend a recently published scholarly book that gives both sides of the debate, inclusive of the viewpoints of major “advocates” and “counteradvocates” .
But what I am primarily interested in for the purpose of this article, is how an assumption that psychic phenomena does take place, which many have argued has been scientifically demonstrated to have a high probability of being the case , might affect this ongoing evolution debate in regard to purpose and design. Actually I would like to up the ante a bit, and make even a more radical assumption, for argument's sake. In recent times there have been various experimental studies with “mediums” who purport to communicate with the departed, and some of these studies have included “triple-blind” methodologies that effectively eliminate or minimize such factors as sensory cues, rater bias, and subjective evaluation . Now of course there is no end to skeptical criticisms of these kinds of experiments, in particular with a focus upon the statistical methodology used in the triple-blind study I have mentioned . But what I am wondering about is: if it were somehow the case that there is some form of a personal non-material entity that survives our deaths, how would this figure into the debate on purpose and design of the universe?
To shed light on these admittedly quite speculative questions I am asking, I realize that to address the question in a scientific context requires cutting edge scientific thinking, so lets bring quantum physics into the picture. In Hawking and Mlodinow's 2010 book The Grand Design, they make the case for the plausibility of “multiple universes” via the ingredients of quantum physics, M-theory, random mutations, and natural selection, all of which is based solely upon the material forces of the universe . There is no purpose or design in their model of the formation of the universe, and all is potentially explained in their theories. However, I find it interesting that a number of contemporary scientific researchers and theorists, including a highly respected and influential quantum physicist who is currently actively involved in the field, Henry Stapp, believes that there is no contradiction between some kind of “non-material” life after death survival and quantum physics theories . Stapp describes the problem of “biocentrism” in utilizing quantum theories to explain the formation of the universe, along with a possible resolution of the problem, as follows:
In short, the mentally described and physically described aspects of this theoretical understanding of nature are both dynamically and conceptually entangled in a way that was opened up by the replacement of the mathematical structure of classical physics, which entailed complete physical determinism, by that of quantum physics, which does not entail complete physical determinism ... There would be in principle a fundamental dependence of the process of cosmic evolution on the presence of life ... One possible resolution is to imagine that even before life, or anything reasonably resembling life, there were localized physical structures around that could support something dimly resembling our conscious experiences, and that “psycho-physical” collapse events were occurring in association with those physical structures. (Stapp, 2010, p. 6).
Stapp proceeds to describe his ideas utilizing relativity theory in combination with quantum physics, which is known as “relativistic quantum field theory” (RQFT). My understanding of the details of all this is quite limited, but Stapp does stress the importance of relaxing the psycho-physical assumptions in order to resolve the biocentrism problem of the quantum description of the formation of the universe being dependent upon some form of life:
But, as argued in an earlier section, a natural resolution of the problem of biocentrism leads to a relaxing of the notion that all reduction events must be psycho-physical events possessing both mental and physical components. That natural resolution of the biocentrism problem is to allow, in addition to the psycho-physical reduction events that dynamically connect our human thoughts to the physically described world around us, reduction events that involve only physical properties. (Stapp, 2010, p. 13).
Stapp next speculates upon what these reduction events that involve only physical properties might imply in regard to analogous non-physical mental events:
When one gets involved with these metaphysical issues that seem to go far beyond the verifiable practical applications of our scientific theories, we are confronted with the question of what determined the form of the laws that seem now to prevail. A naturalistic solution, suggested by the process of natural selection that has brought into being the presently existing life forms, is that the physical laws of nature themselves were honed into their present forms by some analogous process of selection. If we can push back to a time when only one or the other aspect prevailed, then it is certainly much easier to imagine a basically mental world creating for itself a physical substructure to attend to the minor details, than to imagine a purely physical world creating a mental superstructure. For we ourselves, in our mental theorizing, can readily dream up mathematical laws, but no one has yet been able to explain how consciousness could emerge from mindless matter. (Stapp, 2010, p. 14).
Finally Stapp takes the leap and applies his ideas to speculate upon the possibility of the continuation of some form of life after death:
If the reduction events need not always be dual in character, but can sometimes be purely mental or purely physical, and if events of each pure kind can, under appropriate conditions, cling together by virtue of their own dynamical laws, then it would seemingly become possible for the mental and physical aspects of a living person to go their separate ways upon the death of the physical body. For that fatal event would cause the disintegration of the physical properties that normally allow the brain events to hang together with the mental ones. Because the psycho-physical events associated with bio-systems are designed to receive mental inputs that are properly mated to the physical event selected at this psycho-physical event, a disembodied personality could perhaps latch onto a bio-system and thereby affect the physical world. This would produce effects greatly at odds with what classical physics would allow. For it would allow some aspect of personality associated with a deceased person to affect, without any physical means of conveyance, the subsequent behavior of a living person. That would contravene the precepts of classical physics. But if societies of mental events could indeed persist without physical aspects, then such effects would not seem to require any basic change of the known laws of quantum physics. (Stapp, 2010, p. 15).
This is certainly all very speculative, hypothetical, theoretical, and may appear to resemble science fiction more than science. But I must say that my reading of Hawking and Mlodinow's “Grand Design” to explain how “every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously” and how “the fact that the past takes no definite form means that observations you make on a system in the present affect its past” leave me intellectually at a loss of understanding. Perhaps this is just my own shortcoming, but it seems to me that the way Hawking and Mlodinow have jumped from our current understanding of sub-atomic particles via quantum physics to their hypothetical theory of the formation of the universe strikes me as more along the lines of science fiction than my above description of Stapp's ideas.
From my reading of Hawking and Mlodinow, they are essentially postulating “something” out of “nothing,” and this does not click for me. So the universe has been continually expanding and consequently it is assumed that billions of years ago the universe was exceedingly tiny. But how did the material universe get formed to begin with—even if it were initially exceedingly tiny? This is where the idea of “mental” phenomena as described by Stapp, which perhaps can be thought of in the context of some form of archaic consciousness, makes more sense to me. I can think of this as some kind of transformation between energy and mass, as Einstein has formulated, and I can assume that there was no “beginning” but that this archaic consciousness just always existed. And if this happened to be the case all those eons ago, which then set into motion the material universe and all the processes of evolution that science maintains is the explanation for our existence, what does this mean, if anything, for the question that motivated me to enter this debate to begin with?
Does this say anything at all about the question of purpose and design of the universe? Well, if we somehow knew that there were strictly “mental” non-material phenomena that were akin to consciousness and could survive after the death of the body, then even if we could explain the whole “material” universe without resorting to purpose and design, it would seem to me to be quite the stretch to explain this sort of possible evolution of consciousness in the same way. For Stapp it makes more sense to think of mental events or consciousness causing physical events, than the other way around. And I am inclined to agree with Stapp along these lines.
So we now have material existence coming into the picture, with a postulated mental or archaic consciousness initially causing the material universe to begin existing. Then we have psycho-physical processes connecting with each other along the lines of quantum physics, in a way that Stapp tells us is not contradictory to the basic premises of quantum theory. Is “purpose” possibly now lurking somewhere in the interstices of these ancient psycho-physical links and connections that have propelled us into existence? Is it possible that our deepest level consciousness somehow connected up with this hypothetical ancient form of consciousness that somehow propelled the universe into existence? I know—this is all getting more and more bizarre, and I am ending. But when you stop and think about it, is it really any more bizarre than the theory that consciousness and the unfathomable complexity of human beings have emerged completely by random mutations, natural selection, and eventually social engagements, from a blind and purposeless universe of sub-atomic particles and various energy forces billions of years ago?
1) See the following 2011 Integral World articles at www.integralworld.net: David Lane, Frisky Dirt: Why Ken Wilber's New Creationism is Pseudo-Science; David Lane, The Faith of Physical Causes: Presenting the Evidence for Biological Evolution; David Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane, Random Mutations in Molecular Biology; Frank Visser, Arguments from Ignorance: The “Frisky Dirt” Discussion So Far; Andy Smith, Does Evolution Have a Direction; Alexander Astin, Comment on David Lane's “Frisky Dirt”; Andrea Freund, Who Defines the Question? A Reply to the Lanes, Astin and Visser.
2) See Elliot Benjamin (2009), Consciousness, Parapsychology, and Evolution; www.integralworld.net
3) See Stanley Krippner & Harris L. Friedman (Editors) (2010), Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion? Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
4) See for example Chris Carter (2007), Parapsychology and the Skeptics: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of ESP. Pittsburgh, PA: Sterlinghouse; Dean Radin (1997), The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. San Francisco: HarperCollins; Charles T. Tart (2009), The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. Oakland, CA: Noetic Books.
5) See Julie Beischel & Gary Schwartz (2007), Anomalous Information Reception by Research Mediums Demonstrated Using a Novel Triple-Blind Protocol. Explore, Vol. 3, No. 1.
6) See Robert Todd Carroll, A Novel Way to Make an Ass of Yourself: Gary Schwartz Rides Again. The Skeptic's Dictionary, http://www.skepdic.com/essays/novelway.html
7) See Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow (2010), The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.
8) See Henry Stapp (2010), Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival. http://forum.mind-energy.net/local_links.php?linkid=67&catid=11; James Beichler (2008), To Die For: The Physical Reality of Conscious Survival. London: Trafford; Chris Carter (2010), Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. Amit Goswami (2008), Creative Evolution: A Physicist's Resolution Between Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Wheaton, Ill: Quest Books; Edward F. Kelly, Emily W. Kelly, Alan Crabtree, Alan Gauld, Michael Grosso, & Bruce Greyson (2007), Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; Trish Pfeiffer, John E. Mack, & Paul Devereux (2007). Mind Before Matter: Visions of a
New Science of Consciousness. Winchester, UK: O Books.