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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).

Andrea Diem-Lane is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery and When Gods Decay. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.


Understanding the Improbable

Exploring Jeffrey Kripal's Supernatural Challenge

David Christopher Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane

Jeffrey Kripal
Jeffrey Kripal

Jeffrey Kripal's recent article, "Visions of the Impossible: How 'fantastic' stories unlock the nature of consciousness" for the Chronicle of Higher Education has caused a minor stir amongst academics for its positive slant on paranormal experiences. Jerry Coyne writing for the New Republic has penned a scathing critique of Kripal's piece entitled, "Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better". Coyne summarizes Kripal's overall thesis in just two sentences: “People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can't be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science's complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of 'transhuman signals.'”

Since Coyne didn't tackle several of Kripal's more telling ancedotes, I thought it might be fruitful to do a point by point analysis of Kripal's claims and see how well his argument holds up to rational scrutiny.

Kali's Child

I briefly corresponded with Jeffrey many years ago when I was using his book Kali's Child, a controversial psychoanalytic study of the famous Indian mystic of the 19th century, Sri Ramakrishna, in my World Religions courses. I got some heat for doing so from the Vedanta Society in America, since they felt that the book was misguided and wrong on key translations from Bengali to English. Indeed, I received a long letter from a Vedanta monk who presented a detailed rejoinder to Kripal's main thesis and because of this I wrote directly to Jeffrey to hear his opinion on the matter. Interestingly, Gerald Larson, Emeritus Professor of Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University (and formerly at U.C. Santa Barbara) castigated Kripal for being too reductionist in his analysis of Ramakrishna's personal biography. Pravrajika Vrajaprana, apparently concurring with Larson, wrote the following in the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies:

“While the author describes himself as a 'digger' who uncovers hidden material, his methodology has been more like the rogue cop who plants evidence only to 'discover' it for the sake of manufacturing his case. Betraying his own bias, the author frequently uses misleading translations to prove his thesis. Examples abound, but a couple will demonstrate Kripal's technique: Ramakrishna goes into samadhi seeing an English boy who reminds him of Krishna. According to Kripal, Ramakrishna goes into samadhi seeing the boy 'thrice-bent in an erotic pose', and 'stunned by the cocked hips of the boy'. Yet neither of the two references cited by the author mentions 'cocked hips' or an erotic pose. It simply states that the boy was 'tribhanga' - bent in three places. On a different tack, 'maga' is translated as 'bitch' - thus verifying Ramakrishna's purported misogyny - when the word is merely a colloquialism· for 'woman'. Other distorted translations alternately transform Ramakrishna into a pederast or an onanist. . . . The above examples are only a sampling of the book's failings. Sadly, there are inaccuracies of one sort or another on a majority of the book's pages. Kripal's hypotheses are based upon innuendo, prejudicial translation, and cultural misjudgments. Obviously, this approach does little to advance religious and cross-cultural understanding, and that is a larger issue at stake. Can a reductionist approach such as this offer insight into a mystic's world? In the end, Kali's Child has value as a cautionary tale, for the reply it gives to this question is a resounding no.”

I bring this up as a partial preface, since Jeffrey Kripal's core argument (in his recent article for the Chronicle) is strident in its anti-reductionist tone, which, of course, is ironic given his earlier reductionist tendencies in Kali's Child, though Kripal denies that was his intention since he claims to have taken a “nondual methodology.”[1]

In any case, it is intriguing to see Kripal's mind at work when it comes to something he obviously feels very passionate about and to see how well his argument eventually holds up under tighter scrutiny. For clarity's sake, I have numbered my analyses:

1. Mark Twain's Prophetic Dream

Kripal begins his piece with a fascinating retelling of Mark Twain's alleged prophetic dream of his brother's untimely death,

“In the morning, when I awoke I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real. In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the centre.”

Twain was relieved to discover it was only a dream. However, shortly thereafter his dream vision turned out to be all too real. As Twain reveals,

“When I came back and entered the dead-room Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis; and I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went—and I think I missed one detail; but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the center of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.”

Kripal believes precognitive tales like Twain's are manifold and not to be so readily dismissed as mere coincidences, since he argues that “Most scholars have no idea what to do with such poignant, powerful stories, other than to dismiss them with lazy words like 'anecdote' or 'coincidence.'” In addition, Kripal claims that,

“As with the heads of Hercules' Lernaean Hydra, however, with every story we so decapitate, three more, or three thousand more, appear. We are swimming in a sea of such stories, if only we could recognize our situation. We do not know how many such stories there might be, much less what they might mean. We do not know because we have never really tried to find out. Why, after all, would we study something that does not exist? 'Water?' the fish asks. 'What's water?'”
Mark Twain
Mark Twain

While on the surface it may seem as if Kripal's lament has some weight, the opposite is actually the case. Many researchers and scientists do indeed take paranormal claims seriously. In fact, they take them so seriously that they go the extra mile to find out whether or not they are indeed indicative of something truly “trans” personal. Moreover, as I have long argued, parapsychological claims, including Twain's own recollection, are better served by skeptics than believers, since the latter tend to take such stories at their face value and not dig deeper to find out mitigating facts and circumstances which may upend their spooky import.

If we merely accept Kripal's retelling of Twain's dream (suggesting that it is really beyond present-day science to explain it), we might bypass a more “Columbo” like investigation of the narrative which, as I will demonstrate, gives a richer background and context for us to better understand why Twain may have had such a “death” dream of his beloved younger brother, Henry, in the first place. Of course, this doesn't a priori dismiss the possibility of the paranormal, but it does ground the entire story with a chest of illuminating facts.

First, it is important to remember most human beings dream nightly and a large number of these have something to do with future events. The real question that must be asked is what events during our day-to-day lives are engendering or prompting specific dreams about our close kin dying. In other words, were there any circumstances in Mark Twain's relationship with his brother that would have prompted him to dream about his death? Or, is such a dream something that was completely unwarranted?

It turns out that Mark Twain, who was deeply fond of his younger brother, did in fact worry about Henry's well being for weeks and months before his tragic accident. Twain introduced his brother to a more adventurous life and they took 6 boat trips together on the Pennsylvania where Ron Powers recounts that Henry “labored at the bottom of the boat's labor chain.” It was not a pleasant duty at all, since the pilot, William Brown was a “seething and abusive man.” Life upon the ship was so bad, in fact, that Sam and Henry got into a heated fistfight with the Brown, which almost caused the 486-ton steamship to run asunder at nearly 15 miles per hour since no one was monitoring the steering.

Mark Twain and his brother even talked about steamboat disasters and what one should do in such a situation, agreeing that they would stick with the ship as the best route to safety. As Twain himself recalls,

“The subject of that chat was, mainly, one which I think we had not exploited before—steamboat disasters. . . . Henry remembered this [our plan of action] afterward, when, the disaster came, and acted accordingly.”

Looking over Mark Twain recollections prior to Henry's accident, and given the volatile nature of steamboats in those early days, is it any wonder that one might dream of a tragic mishap? I think not, particularly knowing the troublesome nature on board the Pennsylvania, long before Henry's tragic accident.

As a parent myself of two young boys (and keeping in mind that Mark Twain felt a paternal responsibility to his younger brother, Henry, who he called “the flower of the family”), I often virtually simulate all sorts of potentially dangerous situations concerning my children so as to be better prepared in how to respond if such an unfortunate occasion may arise. I have even had a series of very vivid dreams about them, both positive and negative. Therefore, I am not wonderstruck by Mark Twain's dream, since a closer analysis of its specifics doesn't turn up something that is out of the realm of reasonable possibility—whether it be Henry being fitted in his brother's own suit (note: Mark Twain had money; Henry did not) or laying in a metallic burial case, since such coffins were increasingly popular during that time period.

I can well understand that one may wish to believe that Mark Twain's apparent precognition is indicative of a supernatural vision. But given that there innumerable prophetic dreams which never come true it seems much more likely (especially given the background which preceded his dream) that Twain was simulating a very real possibility and that his dream was an archetypal representation of what many of us fear may happen to those we wish to protect from harm's way.[2]

2. A Dream from "Beyond Knowing"

Beyond Knowing

Jeffrey Kripal follows Mark Twain's dream with a story from the book, Beyond Knowing, recounting a remarkable tale of a wife who dreams

“her husband standing next to her bed, apologizing and explaining that he had been in a car accident, and that his car was in a ditch where it could not be seen from the road. She awoke immediately, at 4:20, and called the police to tell them that her husband had been in a car accident not far from their home, and that his car was in a ravine that could not be seen from the road. They recovered the body 20 minutes later.”

Kripal is obviously quite impressed by both these stories and strongly feels that they are not being given their proper due, or even worse that those who experience such numinous happenings are somehow punished for their retelling. As Kripal complains,

“As with the heads of Hercules' Lernaean Hydra, however, with every story we so decapitate, three more, or three thousand more, appear. We are swimming in a sea of such stories, if only we could recognize our situation. We do not know how many such stories there might be, much less what they might mean. We do not know because we have never really tried to find out. Why, after all, would we study something that does not exist? 'Water?' the fish asks. 'What's water?'

It is worse than that, though. It is not just that we are told that such things, which happen all the time, cannot happen at all. It is that there are subtle, and not so subtle, punishments in place for those who take such events seriously—that is, for those who let the Hydra stand. Note that both stories feature a kind of professional fear. Twain struggled for years with whether to own his experiences in print. Even the hospital chaplain was shaken to the core by what he encountered. Clearly these events violate something basic about our worldview and our established ways of knowing. That is why Amatuzio titled her book Beyond Knowing.”

Kripal's protestations seem a tad overstated here, since there is a plethora of books and articles touching upon paranormal themes that have been published both within and outside academia. The real problem, I would suggest, is that these stories are merely anecdotes told after the fact, and don't, as such, proffer overwhelming evidence to convince us that something truly extraordinary has transpired. Granted that Pierre-Simon Laplace's dictum "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness" can be an exacting standard, but why should we settle for less in a field famous for fostering fraudulent claims? It is not so much that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proofs (to echo Carl Sagan and other skeptics), but that one has to be acutely cautious in differentiating that which may be genuine from that which is merely the result of smoke and mirrors. Arguably, the paranormal arena has a greater share of cranks and charlatans than any other with the possible exception of medicine and religion.

Because of this, it is vitally important to be doubly skeptical of any would-be anecdote alleging to be proof of something transcendent. For example, Kripal fails to fill in some very necessary blanks with regard to the wife's dream vision of her husband's car accident. First, what was he doing driving that late at night? Second, what are the conditions of the road near her house at that hour? Third, has her husband had any accidents of a similar nature before? Fourth, has she had any other dreams that late at night where she worried about her husband's whereabouts? These questions are just the tip of a whole slew of pertinent queries that need to be comprehensively answered before we prematurely jump from the mundane into the super mundane region of possible explanations.

I can draw from two very unusual experiences of my own which on the surface look to be of a completely inexplicable nature, particularly if one doesn't delve too deep into the contextual details, but which may not be so unusual given more, not less, information.

Back in 1981 I was teaching Psychology at Chaminade College Preparatory, a Catholic High School in Woodland Hills. One of my students came to me after class on Monday with an anguished expression on her face. She had a most terrifying dream the night before where two of her classmates (both boys and both surfers) got into a horrible car accident where they died being engulfed in flames of fire on Las Virgenes road late at night. I told her not to worry about it and just let it go as a nightmare. However, the following day (Tuesday) she had the same dream and got doubly worried. I told her again not to take it too seriously. But each night until that Friday she had the same recurring nightmare. That weekend, to the girl's shock, the two boys did indeed get into a bad car accident on Las Virgenes road confirming what she had dreamt would happen.

Given just this outline, the girl's psychic precognition would appear to be so bizarre as to resist a rational explanation. However, if the reader learns more details about the two surfers, their driving habits, and what it is like to drive with them on the weekend, it may appear less compelling as a supernatural narrative.

These two boys, who I also taught in class, were avid surfers and the one route that they took to the beach (indeed, the same route I would take on my own surfing adventures in this area) was via Las Virgenes road, since it took one directly to Malibu. This road has had an infamous history of accidents, since it has several long winding sections that veer dangerously close to jagged walled cliffs. In addition, these two surfers were well known at Chaminade to drive too fast for their own good. They would sometimes brag about their speeding efforts so as to make certain they would get waves before sunset. Moreover, even though these two boys were in a bad car accident none of them were seriously injured, which was contrary to the young girl's dream.

Yes, it was an uncanny dream, but knowing what we do about these surfers is it really a tale that requires a supernatural explanation? I think not.

Maharaj Charan Singh Ji (1916–1990)

My second story concerning a psychic nature is a very personal one for me since it involved my late guru, Charan Singh, and my teaching assistant at the time, Michelle Lopez. I was initiated by Charan Singh of Radhasoami Satsang Beas in November of 1978 and had been an avid devotee of him since I discovered him at the age of 17 (which is another curious story, best told at another time). Well, it was spring of 1990 and I was in my first year teaching Philosophy in a tenure track position at Mt. San Antonio College. One lazy afternoon, Michelle Lopez inquired about what spiritual path I was following and was keenly interested in knowing more. I hesitated, since I tended to keep my own meditational practice private and had no desire to tell others, particularly students, of my Indian guru. But Michelle was quite an unusual person who had a deep yearning for something that Western philosophy and her own Catholic upbringing couldn't fulfill. I thought it might be best to give her the brush off by having her read a book, since being a full-time student she wouldn't have time until the end of the semester to read it. The book was by Daryai Lal Kapur and entitled Call of the Great Master and dealt with the life and teachings of Sawan Singh, who was both the grandfather and guru of Charan Singh. To my amazement, Michelle came by my office the very next day saying she had stayed up all night reading the book and was anxious to write to my guru directly. I again hesitated, but looking at her existential desperation I reluctantly gave her his address at the Dera in the Punjab. She wrote a long letter to him that night.

Several weeks late I was awakened very early in the morning by a telephone call from my good friend Paul Tooher who told me the heart wrenching news that Charan Singh had died. This was June 1, 1990. I was devastated since I was quite attached to him. Later that morning I had to take a train from Del Mar to Anaheim (where I kept a car) so as to make it to classes that I wanted to cancel but which I nevertheless attended. However, before I entered into the classroom, I walked over to my office and was surprised to be met by Michelle Lopez who seemed extremely distraught. I asked Michelle why she was there so early and why she was so upset. She then told me the most remarkable story of how she was driving the night before on the 405 freeway and had to pull off on the side of the road because she was overwhelmed by a vision of light. In that light she learned that my guru, Charan Singh, had died. She couldn't believe it and so came to see me early because she was hoping it was just a massive hallucination. When I told Michelle that Charan had indeed died, she was overcome with emotion and couldn't stop sobbing. I too was taken aback, since the time she had her vision and the time that Charan died were spookily correlated.

I asked Michelle if she ever got a reply to her earlier letter to Charan Singh and she said nothing had shown up. I explained that he probably didn't write because he was too busy to respond since he has over a million initiates in India alone.

However, two weeks later at the Mt. San Antonio commencement ceremonies, Michelle came running up to me and said that she had just gotten a letter from Charan Singh that morning. Two weeks after his death? That seemed impossible. But it turned out that Charan had indeed dictated his reply to Michelle but had died before he could sign the letter that was forwarded to her with a note explaining the unusual circumstances. Personally, it was a very sweet letter for me since he had mentioned my name in the body of the letter and told Michelle to seek my advice on understanding the philosophy of Sant Mat.

How can such a story be relegated to the dustbin of mere chance and coincidence? Isn't Kripal correct when he cautions us to transcend our scientism and open our minds up to alternative, even supernatural, explanations? As Kripal implores, “I suggest a way out of our present impasse: We should put these extreme narratives, these impossible stories, in the middle of our academic table. I would also like to make a wager, here and now, that once we put these currently rejected forms of knowledge on our academic table, things that were once impossible to imagine will soon become possible not only to imagine but also to think, theorize, and even test. I am betting, in other words, that we actually need these so-called impossible things to come up with better answers to our most pressing questions, including the biggest question of all: the nature of consciousness.”

Kripal is, of course, correct in his advice that we put these narratives straight and center on our academic agendas, but I think it is already happening much more than he may wish to acknowledge. It just so happens that when we put such narratives under skeptical microscopes much of their magical spell dissipates and gets replaced with the weight of more ordinary factoids.

The real difficulty, I would argue, is being critically analytical of our own numinous or borderline encounters.

The real difficulty, I would argue, is being critically analytical of our own numinous or borderline encounters. Richard Feynman, the distinguished physicist at Cal Tech, rightly cautioned years ago “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Looking more objectively and with an eye for untold details concerning Charan Singh's death and Michelle's extraordinary vision, could there possibly be a more sedate explanation for what occurred?

I think so, even if believers will still hold on to its seeming paranormal implications. First, was there any reason for Michelle to believe (prior to her vision) that Charan's life expectancy was coming to a close? Yes. I, myself, had long worried that he would not live much longer. I thought this not because I was psychic but because I saw some telltale signs in Charan's own behavior, not the least of which was his rushed publication, Treasure Beyond Measure, that revealed for the first time in print very personal details about how he assumed the mastership and his frank admissions about feeling unworthy of such a position. He also opened up the Dera colony to all visitors from around the world, something he had never done before. I imagine that I would have conveyed some of my thoughts about Charan's unprecedented actions to Michelle. Furthermore, Michelle had sent her letter to Charan sometime in April and given his legendary punctuality she may have wondered about the absence of a more timely response. Interestingly, the night that Michelle had her vision of Charan's demise, she had just attended a spiritual talk by a woman guru from India and was driving home when she was overwhelmed by her spiritual revelation.

I realize that elaborating on these contextual details may be unsatisfactory, but it does underline an important issue inherent in these supernatural recollections: the more information we know about them the better informed we will be about adjudicating their alleged transpersonal veridicality.[3]

To Jeffrey Kripal's credit, he readily admits that paranormal stories are not untainted or virginal in their retelling. As Kripal telling reveals,

“It is not just our fault, though. There are fundamental ambiguities inherent in the experiences themselves, ambiguities that make it difficult to put and keep these experiences on our academic tables. To start with, these things are not things. Nor are they replicable or measurable. And then there is the key role that the human imagination plays in these visions. . . . Finally, the recounting of even the empirical cases is often changed in small ways (missing an important detail or supplying a nonexistent one), which suggests that these visions are accurate anomalous cognitions that have been 'filled in' with imagined details—mixtures of trick and truth.”

I think Kripal is more on point when he sides with the correctness of early-Victorian researchers who “called dreams like the two with which I began 'veridical hallucinations,' or hallucinations corresponding to real events.”


But what Kripal seems resistant to accepting is how amazing synchronicities and the like are actually destined to happen given the laws of probability and the theory of large numbers. Indeed, even small random numbers can generate unexpected results, as has been amply demonstrated time and again by the famous birthday paradox where the odds that two people having the same birthday is much higher than one would expect, even with a gathering of just 35 people.

Get a large enough number set and just about any crazy coincidence is bound to happen, as J. E. Littlewood from Cambridge University suggested in the previous century. His work in this regard has been popularly entitled by Freeman Dyson at the Advanced Institute at Princeton as “Littlewood's Law of Miracles” which basically states that after one million or so random events (and if we are open enough to the probability matrix that surrounds them) we should expect a miracle! Littlewood calculated that we would experience about a million events every 35 days, so that the odds are in our favor to witness nearly 12 miracles a year.

In earlier essays I have developed a variation of Littlewood's Law called Desultory Decussation (where two apparently random events intersect to form an X):

“If there are thousands, nay millions, of events in our lives (measured in transparently fractal ways), then it should be expected that for every 10,000 plus events, there may be two or more events which intersect. Notice that intersection and you will be aware of a meaningful coincidence--the meaning being that two disparate parts have something in common (whatever that intersection may entail).

We can even splinter off from this and make a broad sweeping generalization. There are those who look or seek out these desultory decussations and those who do not. I would imagine that some of us are more attuned or keenly aware of the intersections (which happen randomly) and they will end up seeing more meaning in their lives, even if the meaning quota is the same relatively speaking for all.

In other words, there are those who seek the Littlewood stream and plunge right in and those who do not. Blind typing may in fact produce a legible word just by chance, but the key in all this is to actually become aware of that probability and notice it when such does occur. Otherwise, so many amazing happenings of chance go by completely undetected. If we could remain conscious of this mathematical matrix, we could be experiencing stunning hierophanies not only monthly, but perhaps daily. We already know that the theory of large numbers bears this possibility out. The only real glitch resides within our selves. To experience Littlewood miracles or desultory decussations (random events interwining in meaningful X patterns), it takes a Herculean effort on our part to remain open to what strange coincidences nature may throw out at us. Littlewood's Law, interestingly enough, first requires us to be attentive, exceptionally so.”
The Improbability Principle

David J. Hand, Senior Research Investigator and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and Chief Scientific Advisor to Winton Capital Management has written a book whose title captures how truly unusual moments occur all the time, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. As Hand explains his thesis,

“The improbability principle is composed of five laws, analogous to the four laws of thermodynamics or Newton's three laws of motion. These laws, the law of inevitability, the law of truly large numbers, the law of selection, the law of the probability lever, and the law of near enough, explain exactly why we should expect to encounter highly unlikely events, and indeed why we should expect to do so on a regular, even frequent, basis. Any one of the laws acting by itself can lead to a highly improbable event—like people winning the lottery twice, or 26 black numbers coming up one after another in roulette.”

Yet, Kripal's long essay in the Chronicle is not merely about the study of improbable occurrences, but more pointedly a critique of a purely materialist agenda that he feels has saturated and (to some measure) poisoned the well of academia to such an extent that religious scholars cannot even take the core of their subject—the religious—seriously. As Kripal tellingly argues in a long passage:

“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. Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we'll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We 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. 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.”

But does Kripal's materialist summation really capture what is happening across scientific disciplines? I think not. Yes, to be sure, there are those who fit into Kripal's caricature, but one can readily think of many more scientists and researchers that do not. M.I.T., for instance, one of the premier “materialist” institutions in the world has published a whole line of monographs and books exploring how eastern forms of meditation (Zen or otherwise) connect with current studies in neuroscience. The University of Arizona has sponsored all sorts of studies on consciousness for the past two decades, allowing for a wide variety of contributors—many of whom favor distinctly non-materialist understandings of self-reflective awareness. Even Harvard University, the gold standard of all things scientific, has featured a slew of books focusing on the central importance of consciousness and which do not dismiss its central importance.

Perhaps the real thorn in Kripal's claw is the diminishing impact that the humanities in general have in shaping intellectual discourse today, especially as the hard sciences have emerged as having a much greater influence and say among today's technological savvy audience. As Kripal confesses,

“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 think Kripal's worry is misguided and based on a fundamental misreading of what materialism portends.

But I think Kripal's worry is misguided and based on a fundamental misreading of what materialism portends. Indeed, as I argued in a filmed keynote presentation at the International SPIRCON conference held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India, four years ago, the real impasse between religion (or, in this parameter, the humanities) and science stems largely from a linguistic conundrum over what the word “matter” ultimately means. Kripal seems under the mistaken impression that relegating everything to a material basis somehow negates or eliminates the mystery of the universe at large and renders useless any cosmic feeling of importance that we may once have had. To use Kripal's metaphor, we have been shrunken almost to the point of oblivion by our overly reductionist purviews. Kripal uses Scott from the Incredible Shrinking Man as a clarion call against such materialist tendencies, but in so doing seems to have forgotten the most moving part of the entire movie wherein Scott realizes that no matter how much he may shrink and no matter how small he may become in comparison to others, the vast mystery of the universe doesn't lessen one iota but becomes ever greater as he appreciates that the infinitely small and the infinitely large meet. It is through his incredible shrinking that he gains a much deeper spiritual insight into the vastness of the cosmos of which he is intimately linked.

There is a wonderful majesty to the multiverse we find ourselves in and it isn't lessened by science's naturalistic methodologies in the least. To the contrary our materialist science has opened vistas unimagined by our ancestors by focusing precisely on that which can indeed be observed by our increasingly sophisticated sensory extensions—be they microscopic or macroscopic in their reach. What is more mind blowing? The Genesis account of creation (where God creates two lights in the sky, one to the guide the day and one to guide the night, apparently not realizing that the moon isn't a source of light as such, but rather a reflector of the sun) or the latest findings in astrophysics, where almost weekly new discoveries are being made which tell us about black holes a million times larger than our sun, vast galaxies with innumerable stars and planets, and strange mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy? Astronomy is Genesis rewritten and expanded nightly.

No, the humanities aren't shrinking in the least but it is rather taking on a new and richer form, the likes of which can only increase our appreciation of human culture and ingenuity. The new humanities are one that is not distanced from the hard sciences (as C.P. Snow famously explained in his lecture about the two cultures) but is intimately connected with them, and because of this is offering up stunningly beautiful and novel pathways to better understand humankind and its place in the cosmos.

Simply put, I don't see Kripal's alleged impasse between matter and spirit. I see, rather, a persistent confusion on our part for not taking matter and what it implies seriously enough. For if we do that, and don't hide our heads in the sand with unnecessary and outdated dualisms, we soon realize that matter is just as mysterious, if not more so, than anything described in our spiritual literature. Matter is multi-dimensional and doesn't in itself exclude anything whatsoever in the human experience, but rather embraces everything just as an ocean includes even the tiniest of water drops and the largest of tsunamis.

This doesn't mean to indicate that we ultimately know what matter is. We don't and therein lay the great truth that upends those with a religious bent who are afraid of being reduced to mere physicality. Saying we are merely this body, merely this stuff doesn't lessen who we are one bit. Why? Because there is nothing “merely” about matter, since the word itself is but a placeholder for “something doing something that we ultimately do not know what,” to bastardize a famous line from the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington.

Our consciousness won't be lessened if it turns out to be an emergent property of the brain and its 86 billion neurons, just as the ocean isn't lessened by knowing that its fundamental parts are a mixture of Oxygen and Hydrogen. This is why I find Kripal's attempt to salvage consciousness from its materialist underpinnings to be premature and unnecessary. He mistakenly believes that we need to divorce consciousness from its material corpus (thus he invokes the often-utilized “awareness as radio signal” which moves through hardware but which is not created by it) so as to more properly explain such anomalies as Twain's dream and Michelle's inner vision. But this, as I have already pointed out isn't necessary if indeed we live in a vast probability matrix, the likes of which can on occasion (just by the vastness of numerical intersections and life experiences) bring about the most startling and unexpected of synchronicities. Imagine how many precognitive dreams we have had in our lifetime and how many of them have never amounted to anything significant. Add some 7 billion dreamers to that mix and start calculating the odds that some dreams may stand out as remarkable predictors of future events. Following Littlewood's lead and David Hand's Improbability Principle and we should expect a lot more Twain-like precognitions than we can at first imagine. None of this necessitates believing that consciousness has to be immaterial, keeping in mind the very necessary caveat that even if awareness is purely physical it doesn't by definition mean we have truly understood it nor have we eliminated its majestic mystery.

Metaphorically speaking, I don't see why we have to invite Plato back to academia (as Kripal implores) if he has never left the building in the first place. Science welcomes all voices, even the most hyperbolic, but to be properly heard and appreciated it is necessary not to confuse innumeracy with evidence. As Plato cautioned his students so many centuries ago who wished to study at his famous academy, “Let none ignorant of geometry enter here."

Or, to summarize what Kripal may have underplayed in his anti materialist primer for embracing the unexplained, “The high improbability of an event oftentimes blinds us from the probability, even if rare, that such events are probabilistic.


[1] I must confess that I was taken aback by Jeffrey Kripal's credulity when I read his unabashed fawning of the late cult guru, Adi Da (aka Franklin Jones, Bubba Free John, Da Free John, et. al), in his foreword to the updated edition of The Knee of Listening. It gives one pause when a scholar of Kripal's rank can be taken in by the likes of Adi Da whose track record with certain female devotees was nothing less than unconscionably abusive. Professor Scott Lowe from the University of Wisconsin and I have written a critical analysis of Adi Da's life and work nearly 20 years ago. The book is entitled DA: The Strange Case of Franklin Jones. Dr. Lowe was a former member of Da's group and has given a harrowing portrayal of his former guru.

[2] When I was a teenager in high school my friend Charles and I planned our first surf trip to San Clemente and the night before I had an exceptionally vivid dream of a blonde hair girl who worked at a burger joint in San Clemente, even though I had never been there before in my life. That next day when we arrived in San Clemente after surfing at San Onofre, we stopped by a drive-on hamburger stand off the freeway and when I ordered my food I immediately noticed a blonde hair girl behind the counter who looked exactly like the girl I had dreamt about the night before. I was so shocked by her appearance that I even told her about my uncanny dream. Nothing came of it, except perhaps a self-conscious smirk from her and her co-workers. Of course, dreaming of a blonde hair girl before a surf trip may not be so unusual amongst teenage boys who surf.

[3] Michelle Lopez died just a couple of years after Charan Singh's death. She was a very kind and warm-hearted person whose life was tragically cut short by a drunk driver who ran a red light. Michelle had told me long before her death that she feared she would die young and that it would most likely be from a car accident. When I asked her why, she told me of a strange psychic she had met who told her that she would die unexpectedly from a car accident. I was irritated and quite shocked that a psychic would tell her such a terrible thing, but Michelle didn't seem troubled by the prediction. Thankfully, Michelle had a beautiful baby girl before she died and right before the accident she had dropped her daughter off with relatives. She is missed by all those who knew her to this very day.

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