Who You Really Are And Why It Matters

By Charles Foster

 [This is a review of The Flip: Who you really are, and why it matters, by  Jeffrey J. Kripal. Penguin, 2020]

A few years ago I dislocated my shoulder. I went off to hospital, and breathed nitrous oxide while they tried to put it back. Something very strange yet very common happened. ‘I’ rose out of ‘my’ body, and looked down at it. I could see the nurse’s centre parting and the top of my own bald head. ‘I’ was aware of the pain in the shoulder, and regretted it, but it wasn’t really my business.

My mind was hovering over the skull that encased my brain, and so it seemed ludicrous to say that mind and brain were identical. The experience ousted my residual materialism. Out went Aristotle: in came Plato. This change was a ‘flip’, as Kripal describes such events in this exhilarating, bold, timely, and profoundly important book.

Personal experience of this kind often produces tectonic philosophical conversions in professional philosophers and scientists. Mere reflection rarely does. This observation itself is likely to elicit howls of derision from the materialists. For them, to intrude oneself into an inquiry is necessarily to invalidate it. And of course the humanities are supremely to be mocked, for they are all to do with subjectivity.

This derision has a dated, desperate feel about it. It’s the last gasp of a fundamentalism that’s on the way out. In assessing the results of scientific experimentation one simply can’t ignore the consciousness of the observer. The idea that one can goes back to Descartes, who split reality into two realms – the mental and the material. Eighteenth century science, without any evidence whatever for the split, and ignoring an immense amount of evidence for its absence, then ignored the mental domain, and proceeded on the assumption that all that there was (or all that mattered) was a mechanical reality, unaffected by observation, and devoid of consciousness. The rules governing the operation of the machine were clear. Newton and others had defined them.

That’s where most scientists stand today – at least in public, and if they want to get and keep tenure, and be published in the good journals. Newton has been joined on the pedestal by Darwin. Together they are omniscient.

There are some impressive things on the cv of post-eighteenth century science. It has made many cool gadgets, and some vindicated predictions. But its reputation depends on looking only at its successes, and ignoring the failures. It’s easy to draw a neat straight line on a graph if you delete all the outliers.

Everyone knows that quantum mechanics and relativity are discordant with classical mechanics, but the significance of the discordance is not widely appreciated. Newton, after all, continues to calculate fairly accurately the momentum of car crashes and the orbits of planets.

The real significance of the difference lies in the role that each accords to the effect of the observer, and accordingly in the degree of certainty with which each says assertions about the natural world can be made. These issues were the subject of a famous debate between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Einstein (despite his authorship of relativity) advocated the traditional view, inherited from Newtonian mechanics and embodied in the swaggering self-confidence of nineteenth-century science, that physics would eventually describe perfectly the weave of the world. This is the (essentially religious) belief that’s voiced whenever one of science’s shortcomings is mentioned. Take consciousness, for instance. There has been no progress whatever in saying what it is, or in suggesting how it might be an emergent property of matter.  ‘Just give us time’, comes the response. ‘Our existing principles will do the job’.

You’ve misunderstood physics, Bohr told Einstein. Uncertainty doesn’t denote an incomplete theory: it is part of the very structure of reality. Heisenberg had noted that there was no such thing as ‘an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist independently of whether we observe them…’

We now know that Bohr and Heisenberg were right, and Einstein was wrong – at least in relation to fundamental particles. Relationship, and consequential indeterminacy, are basic constituents of the universe. Once particles have interrelated, their internal states correlate with one another, however widely separated in time or space the particles may be. Since all particles began life at or near the same place, at or near the same time, perhaps we can talk sensibly about the universe as one organism, each cell affecting the other. Many mystics – many quantum physicists amongst them – have spoken of the interconnection of things in terms of Mind.

 There is obviously a relationship between brain and mind: between matter and consciousness. If a lorry rolls over my head it will affect my consciousness in some way. Mind, as Kripal puts it, is mattered. But this does not begin to exclude the possibility that matter is minded. William James put it beautifully: Human consciousness is a function of the brain, but function is not the same thing as production. Function can also denote transmission. A prism reflects light, but the light is not produced by the prism itself. Perhaps brains are like transmitters or receivers of mind. Perhaps they act like valves or filters, restricting the flow into us of data from an extravagantly minded world. It would make sense of much human experience – not least the dramatic new perspectives (out of body experiences and near death experiences among them) that we get when the valve is compromised. Subjects who have had out of body experiences often report that they have had a 360 degree view of their own body. It sounds suspiciously as if they’ve added another dimension to their perception; as if the brain’s usual and convenient (but mathematically naïve) insistence on three spatial dimensions has been temporarily trumped.

‘The general materialistic framework of the sciences at the moment is not wrong’, writes Kripal. ‘It is simply half right’. His book is a brilliantly successful attempt to demonstrate what might be added to our understanding of the universe and ourselves if we took seriously the insights of ordinary and extraordinary human experience. Those insights chime perfectly with Bohr and Heisenberg, and they suggest strongly that ‘mindedness is fundamental to the cosmos, not some tangential, accidental, or recent emergent property of matter’. They may indeed go further than that, and entail the conclusion that matter is ‘an expression of some kind of cosmic Mind….’

The equations of quantum physics are, for Kripal, a thrilling new genre of mystical literature. In the quantum world, matter is congealed energy, the division between space and time is illusory, and dark energy constitutes most of the universe. You can go seamlessly from those observations to the Tibetan Book of the Dead  or the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Where does all this leave the humanities? If the best books on consciousness are written by physicists, does anyone who doesn’t understand partial differential equations have anything to offer? Yes, says Kripal – and this may be the main legacy of The Flip. The best defence advocates are those who acknowledge their clients’ shortcomings, and Kripal is merciless. Why, he asks, should anyone listen respectfully to a discipline ‘whose central arguments often boil down to the claim that the only truth to have is that there is no truth…’? Quite right. But there is hope for non-scientific writers. The humanities, after all, have had consciousness as the, or a, central concern for thousands of years. And now their special subject is the main focus of research in the world’s best funded laboratories. Kripal proposes ‘that we reimagine the humanities as the study of consciousness coded in culture.’ (Original emphasis). That’s a high calling.

‘An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted’, wrote Arthur Miller. The illusion of the adequacy of materialism as an explanation for the nature of the world is exhausted, and a new era of real science is surely about to begin – an era in which all the available evidence is taken into account, and accordingly one that recognises that (in Kripal’s words) ‘mind is an irreducible dimension or substrate of the natural world, indeed of the whole cosmos…’, and in which science and the humanities play a synergistic role in expounding the nature of that substrate. Kripal’s book will be seen as one of the foundational texts of that new synergy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Who You Really Are And Why It Matters

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thank you, Charles, for your post. It makes a diverting change from Covid in the columns of the blog.

    It is interesting that to launch it you choose to relate a hallucination produced by laughing gas. Isn’t this a classic demonstration of chemistry (base, material, mindless chemistry) determining consciousness ? The special pleading against the desperate, mocking, last-gasp howls of derision from dated, tenure-obsessed two-faced scientists doesn’t help your case too much either. (Yes, of course you don’t use the phrase “two-faced”, but you will accept, I hope, that the use of “at least in public” implies it..) And the implication that post-18th century science has done little more than make many cool gadgets and bury its mistakes doesn’t really carry much credibility, nor does it advance your argument.
    So what’s left ? A rather manichean account of the side-effects of the “mind-body split” debate since Descartes, who is blamed as the root (if unwitting) cause of all those who “ignore the mental domain”. (Ignore the mental domain ? Has the explosion of social and psychological studies been invisible ?). A debate between Bohr and Einstein on the uncertainty principle which I am not qualified to comment on (no more than the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I’m afraid), and the accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances.

    And all for what ?
    “Mind is the irreducible dimension or substrate of the natural world, indeed of the whole cosmos.”
    * Is it a dimension, or is it a substrate ? Or are they synonyms ?
    * Ditto “natural world” and “whole cosmos”.
    * If it’s irreducible, how is it produced, and where does it come from ?
    “The illusion of the adequacy of materialism as an explication for the nature of the world is exhausted.”
    * If mind is irreducible, how have you advanced in explicatory power ?

    Sorry, but I don’t think that Kripal’s book will become one of my foundational synergetic texts. (Of course, my view will change nothing whatsoever, anywhere in Oxford, Europe, the universe, the cosmos…..)

  • Charles Foster says:

    Anthony: thank you. You say: ‘….you choose to relate a hallucination produced by laughing gas. Isn’t this a classic demonstration of chemistry (base, material, mindless chemistry) determining consciousness?’
    It may be. If it is, it is not terribly interesting.
    But if it isn’t, it changes just about everything. That seems to me to be a reason to consider this and related observations seriously, rather than (as is usual) to refuse to consider them at all.
    ‘Has the explosion of social and psychological studies been invisible?’, you ask. No, not invisible. Just rather timorous and conservative. Science should be about more than squeezing the evidence, however uncomfortably, into the conventional pigeon-holes.

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