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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).

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The Materialist Orbit

A Critique of Jeffrey Kripal's Paranormal Apologia

David Lane

Clip from The Forbidden Planet about the Projections from the Unconscious
What at first appears to be psychic inevitably turns out to be “less” paranormal the more contextual information we get about the particular incident.

Jeffrey Kripal's latest book, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, extends his anti-materialist critique, which he codified in an opinion piece back in 2014 for the Chronicle of Higher Education.[1] Kripal's central thesis is that occasionally some events happen in our lives which cause us to “flip” or “reverse” our previous ways of thinking which he believes go beyond a reductionistic understanding of the mind. He even goes so far as to suggest that “matter may, in fact, be an expression of some kind of cosmic Mind [sic], which expresses itself as the material world through the abstract structures of mathematics and physics.”

The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge

While Kripal's book is quite accessible and highly readable, I find that the examples he cites to support his “trans-materialism” purview to be half-baked and lacking in the necessary attention to detail to make his argument persuasive. As I have argued in previous essays and books, what at first appears to be psychic inevitably turns out to be “less” paranormal the more contextual information we get about the particular incident, whether it be Mark Twain's supposed precognitive dream about his brother Henry's untimely death, or a wife's intuition about her husband's car accident early in the morning.

Yet, Kripal seems resistant to more rationalist explanations and instead prematurely opts for the transcendent. This becomes clear on page 44 where Kripal champions the recent work of Thomas Nagel in his critique of neo-Darwinism (see his book Mind and Cosmos), panpsychicism, and apparently anything else which questions a more materialist agenda—which he labels as “all positive signs.”

But Kripal seems to be suffering under a deep misunderstanding of what matter portends and seems all too eager for a transcendent escape hatch. This, I would argue, is completely unnecessary. We don't need to rush in with “angels” when simple physics will do.

Kripal believes that there is a reason that psychic phenomena don't show up regularly since they are by their very nature borderland manifestations and often connected with deeply emotional traumas. Writes Kripal,

“Hence it is utterly unsurprising, indeed perfectly predictable, that the controlled laboratory evidence involves slight but statistically significant patterns rather than the dramatic, blow-your-mind, knock-your-socks-off moments, which is precisely what one commonly encounters in the real-world traumatic cases.”

Here Kripal makes an absolute claim that I don't think can withstand rational scrutiny, much less illuminate the real problem confronting parapsychology. Sorry, but nothing seems “perfectly predictable,” especially not when humans are conducting experiments in a lab.

A close reading of Kripal's narrative shows quite clearly that he doesn't hold a favorable opinion of skeptics, who he believes ignore anecdotal stories which point to something beyond our current scientific understanding. As Kripal enjoins,

“The professional debunker's insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules [comment: are female skeptics exempt here?] and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile controlled laboratory is little more than a mark of how serious ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question.”

I am not sure which “professional debunkers” Kripal is referring to here (Amazing Randi, et. al?) but I would imagine that contrary to what he opines about them that they would be well aware of the anomalous nature of psi and that is precisely why they argue for the necessity of double-blind experiments so as to ground “anecdotal recollections” (which are invariably prone to innumerable bias errors) with some hard evidence, statistically significant or otherwise.

The field of parapsychology needs less believers and more doubters since the latter (and not the former) will by necessity look for mundane alternative explanations and not leap to premature conclusions.

Kripal then suggests that because he is not a scientist his pro psi views may not be taken seriously enough and thus invokes the words of the famous physicist-mathematician Freeman Dyson to support his paranormal advocacy. But Kripal's appeal to a more esteemed authority figure adds nothing to his argument, since there are a number of esteemed thinkers in the hard sciences who believe in all sorts of nonsense, including being members of religious cults. No, what is necessary is persuasive evidence since that (and not the testimonies of would-be advocates) is what is in short supply, despite Kripal's overheated claims to the contrary.

In this regard, I am surprised by how quick some eminent scientists opt for transcendent explanations for unusual occurrences that happen to them personally. I realize that we seem to have a neurological predilection to find extraordinary patterns and meanings in events that at first glance seem too improbable to be the outcome of mere chance. Yet, in a probabilistic universe we should expect that bizarre happenings will transpire. Indeed, given the odds, they must occur.

But this doesn't then mean that they really are glimpses of a neglected psychic realm which can only manifest on the outskirts or under traumatic circumstances.

John Horgan in chapter four of his newest online book, Mind-Body Problems, details a moving interview he conducted with the distinguished scientist, Stuart Kaufmann, about the tragic death of his beautiful daughter Merit.[2] It is a heart-rending story and one is naturally hesitant to apply a critical overlay to Kaufmann's reported paranormal insight about his daughter's death a month before it happened. As Horgan recounts,

“A month before Merit died, Kauffman picked her up at her boyfriend's home, which was five miles from the Kauffman home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Merit said she wanted to walk home, but Kauffman insisted that he drive her. Night had fallen. They were driving down a street, passing a tree, when an image, like a snippet of film, flashed into Kauffman's mind. Merit was walking down the middle of the street, her back to oncoming traffic, when a car struck her.
'I was staggered, just blown away,' Kauffman said of his vision. He didn't mention it to Merit, but he made her promise she would never walk home from the boyfriend's house. She would always call him for a ride. Merit, after a moment of silence, replied that she would walk as far as a restaurant near her boyfriend's house, where she would call her father so he could pick her up. 'I thought, 'Well that's a pretty fair compromise.' So I said, 'Fine, Merit,' and we went home.'
A month later, on October 25, 1986, Kauffman and Liz were at the wedding of an acquaintance. They reconstructed what happened to Merit from conversations with her boyfriend, his parents and others. 'We were very gentle' with the boyfriend, Kauffman said. 'We never blamed him, because he was going to carry enough trauma.'
Merit's older brother dropped her off at the boyfriend's house. He and Merit drank some wine, and then he told Merit he was breaking up with her because he had a new girlfriend. He asked Merit for money so he could take a taxi to the new girlfriend's house. Merit left the house and started walking home. She set her purse down at the side of the road. Then she lay down in the road, her head toward the middle, her face turned toward oncoming traffic. She was in the same spot where Kauffman had had his vision of her being hit by a car a month earlier.
Three drivers later reported seeing Merit lying in the road. One was an anesthesiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, where Kauffman worked. The anesthesiologist was with his wife, who was nine months pregnant. He didn't stop, because it was a few days before Halloween, and he feared the girl in the road might be playing a trick. If he slowed down, her friends might throw eggs at his car. He drove to a police station and reported what he had seen.
Police rushed to where the anesthesiologist reported seeing Merit. It was too late. 'A car had come from the other lane, going the other way, not in the lane Merit was in, going too fast,' Kauffman said. 'He slammed on the brakes, tire marks all over the place, skidded into Merit's lane, hit her and crushed her brain stem.'

Later, in the conversation with Horgan, Kaufmann continues,

“At some point, Kauffman told Liz and his son about his vision of Merit being hit by a car. Liz didn't want her husband to share details of his vision or of Merit's death with anyone outside the family. Kauffman only started talking about these events after Liz died in 2013.
Liz 'was ashamed that Merit had lain down in the road, because there are suicidal components to it,' Kauffman explained. It was possible, he thought, that Merit did not really want to die. Her act might have been a 'desperate attempt for attention' that went awry. She might have been hoping that her boyfriend would see her when he took a cab to his new girlfriend's house.
The day after Merit died, Kauffman had another 'anomalous' experience. He called Linda, a childhood friend who lived in Denver, to tell her what had happened. Linda said she had dreamed about him the previous night. In the dream Kauffman was sitting on the floor, in agony, while Liz embraced him. Kauffman had not spoken to Linda for eight months.”

Horgan concludes that these experiences may be beyond our current scientific understanding when he writes,

“Let me be clear. Kauffman is describing two paranormal incidents. The first was his vision of Merit walking down the road and being hit by a car, which occurred a month before she died at the same spot. The second was the dream of his friend Linda about him and Liz on the night of Merit's death. These incidents cannot be accounted for by mainstream science—unless of course you assume that they are just coincidences, or that they didn't really happen.”

I don't doubt that the reported events occurred. But what I find puzzling is why Horgan doesn't opt and champion the simplest explanation for Kaufmann's unusual experiences. Given a large enough number set, it is not that coincidences may happen, but that they must. In a probabilistic world, we should expect the strangest of synchronicities and none of them necessitate anything more than a rudimentary understanding of statistics.

Moreover, as I have indicated before, psychic experiences tend to look less psychic the more contextual information we have about the said event. In Kauffman's case, for instance, we learn that Merit had undergone a dramatic change in her behavior and outlook. As Horgan explains, “When they returned home, Merit became troubled. A 'good girl' and straight-A student, she started getting bad grades and becoming rebellious. She 'went from absolutely solid to being in turmoil.' Merit might have been upset that the family was moving soon to Santa Fe, and that her older brother, to whom she was close, was going to a boarding school in Colorado. 'She seemed to be in some emotional difficulty,' Kauffman said, 'but John, we didn't know it. It came on very fast.' Merit started dating a boy her age. 'Of course I didn't want her to,' Kauffman said. 'There was no way I was going to stop her. Things were flooding through her body near the onset of adolescence.'”

Now is it any wonder that a caring father, noticing these types of behavioral changes in his daughter, may ponder all sorts of bad case scenarios, particularly with a new boyfriend, who lived five miles away? Why else would Kauffman insist that he pick her up and not let her drive home by herself?

As a father myself of two young boys (and I am sure of all loving fathers and mothers everywhere), I tend to simulate all sorts of possibilities about what may or may not happen when they visit friends or go on trips without my supervision. Yes, one does imagine car accidents, ocean riptides, kidnappings, and all sorts of horrid things. Not because we wish them, but because we wish to be ready to prevent them.

I don't think Kauffman's visionary “snippet” of his daughter getting hit by a car requires a paranormal interpretation. To the contrary, such premonitions must happen, given the thousands—nay millions—of random and not so random musings that pass through our minds monthly.

I suspect that the reason Kauffman, Kripal, and others (including myself on occasion) lean towards non-materialist explanations is because of our desire for purpose and meaning in a world that seems ontologically devoid of both. Given our evolutionary heritage, we look for higher reasons for why bad things happen since any meaning—even if non-rational—is better than no meaning whatsoever, provided it sustains us to live a bit longer on this eat or be eaten planet.

Take as an illustrative example the devoutly Christian family that loses a young child to a horrific disease. Often, I have seen such parents appear on television and explain that they believe God has a greater purpose in store for them and they have faith that their son/daughter is in heaven with Jesus.

Instead of being cynical of such confessions of belief, I deeply admire such parents for their courage and fortitude having to live through that awful situation. I know that I wouldn't be able to do it. But it is precisely the Christian belief in God's plan (even if there is no evidence whatsoever that such a God or a plan exists) that sustains people of faith. Likewise, thinking that materialist explanations are insufficient to explain atypical phenomena can for some suggest an overarching metaphysic which indicates that the universe—contrary to Steven Weinberg's famous lamentation—really has a point. This doesn't mean by extension, however, that everything can be explained by physicalist causes but only that we shouldn't jump too quickly towards transcendent answer, particularly when more common explanations may still be abounding.

Jeffrey Kripal in his haste to usher in a new kind of humanities (that invokes science while trying in some measure to go beyond it) has created a misleading caricature of debunkers, falsely believing that there only agenda is to dismiss any and all parapsychological claims. To the contrary, many skeptics would be downright pleased to have their rationalist worldview upended. I, for one, wouldn't be upset if Uri Geller really could bend spoons with his mind or if the late Sathya Sai Baba could pull religious relics out of thin air or if Rupert Sheldrake's morphic resonance was verified. The skeptic, I would suggest, isn't necessarily a curmudgeonly pessimist but rather one who wants to believe if given sufficient evidences.

The Materialist Orbit

But perhaps the biggest sticking point I find in Kripal's entire approach is his misunderstanding of what a materialist purview is attempting to accomplish. It is not that empirically based scientists are “policing” what should be studied and what shouldn't. No, it is an issue of practicality and what can be garnered by a particular line of inquiry. Kripal exaggerates when he writes, “and the police are the classical materialists, be they scientists or humanists (for the humanities are nearly as policed by classical materialism as the sciences are). If, of course, we were to put the stuff in the materialist's wastebasket back on the table, what the table 'means' would shift, and shift dramatically.”

Kripal proceeds to argue that “with every passing decade, that human nature is getting tinier and tinier and less significant. In a few more years we'll just blip out of existence, like poor Scott [the main character in the 1950s science fiction movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man] at the end of the film, reduced to nothing more than cognitive-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. Either that or these same methods will simply kill us off. Indeed, at this point, we in the humanities are constantly reminded of the 'death of the subject' and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top—in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets.”

I am not quite sure who Kripal is talking with these days, but perhaps he needs to widen his field of academic acquaintances, since I have yet to meet any scientist or humanist who fits this hyperbolic profile. Kripal is creating an extravagant strawman (or should we say meat puppet?) of his own making and dissecting it so as to convince us that the future is beyond bleak because of the march of mindless materialists (who have somehow infiltrated the many corridors of academia) who preach the physicalist gospel “that there is nothing to [us] except cognitive girds, software loops, and warm brain matter.”

Really? Kripal is paralyzing himself with his own Freudian projections, not dissimilar to what happened in the 1950s science fiction movie Forbidden planet when Dr. Morbious' own unrecognized unconscious created monstrous phantasms bent on killing anyone who got close to his daughter, Altaira. Why one wonders is Kripal so fustian in his rhetoric? Who exactly is going around claiming we are just “software loops” who are nothing more than “walking corpses with computers on top” of our heads?

His argument would be at least more engaging if he was laser specific about who precisely is joining forces in this purported “march of mindless materialists.”

But nuance is not Kripal's forte' so instead he makes bombastic generalities such as “We are in the fantastically ridiculous situation that conscious intellectuals are telling us that consciousness does not really exist as such.”

Again, who are these “conscious” intellectuals? Daniel Dennett and his ilk? If so, then Kripal should tackle his ideas directly and not lump him with everyone else, especially when Dennett's own colleagues (the very academy Kripal believes is entrapped in some sort of physicalist cult), such as John Searle (U.C. Berkeley) and Thomas Nagel (N.Y.U.) are harsh critics of his user-illusion ideas.

My point is a simple one: the sciences and humanities are not of one singular opinion since there are wide variances within each discipline (from physics to psychology). The materialist “Blob” (to invoke yet another science fiction movie from the 1950s) is not overtaking graduate schools of higher learning. No, look at the publication list of books available from MIT press (the famous watering hole of all things physicalist) and you will find such incongruent titles as Living Zen Remindfully: Retraining Subconscious Awareness; Mental Time Travel: Episodic Memory and Our Knowledge of the Personal Past; Panpsychism in the West; The Embodied Mind Cognitive Science and Human Experience; and Real Hallucinations Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World. And the list goes on.

The Blob

Ironically, even though Kripal uses the film The Incredible Shrinking Man to drive a stake into the heart of materialism suggesting it reflects our current flatland models of reality, he skips over the magnificent and spiritual conclusion where the main character, Scott Carey, has a satori experience during his exponential meltdown. His realization is the complete opposite of what Kripal infers. It is breathtaking and deserves a close reading (or better yet rent the movie and hear it for yourself):

“This was the prize I had won. I approached it in an ecstasy of elation. I had conquered. I lived. But even as I touched the dry, flaking crumbs of nourishment it was as if my body had ceased to exist. There was no hunger. No longer the terrible fear of shrinking. Again I had the sensation of instinct. Of each movement, each thought tuned to some great directing force. I was continuing to shrink, to become… What? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens, the universe, worlds beyond number. God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man's conception, not Nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.”

Scott Carey didn't leave matter he penetrated it and thus became enlightened. Perhaps those who wish to champion all things parapsychic should follow suit. As Rebecca Goldstein, the author of Plato at the Googleplex, brilliantly underlines,

“I'm still a materialist but matter is a hell of a lot more interesting than we used to think it is.”

Ending Narration from The Incredible Shrinking Man

NOTES

[1] Jeffrey J. Kripal, "Visions of the Impossible: How 'fantastic' stories unlock the nature of consciousness", The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31, 2014.

[2] John Horgan, Mind Body Problems, Independently published, 2019, Chapter Four: "The Complexologist: Tragedy and Telepathy."





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