Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
The book featured here is one of the most important conceptual contributions to parapsychology (and all disciplines concerned with the mind) in recent years. Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 978-1-4422-3238-9, $60.00). The book is a collection of essays by various authors mentioned below that was put together by three editors, who also contributed to the book. These are, from the publisher’s website: Dr. Edward F. Kelly (a research professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, with interests in psychical research and functional neuroimaging), Adam Crabtree (a psychotherapist in private practice and on the faculty of the Centre for Training in Psychotherapy in Toronto, with interests in the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, as well as the history and practice of psychodynamic psychology) and Paul Marshall (an independent researcher with interests in mysticism, philosophy and psychology of religion, science-religion relations, and consciousness studies).
Beyond Physicalism is available from Rowman & Littlefield. Purchasers from the US can call the publisher at 1-800-462-6420 and use the code 4S15KECRMA to get a 30% discount of the price, or download the Sales Flyer, fill it out and fax or mail it in. The flyer is available to download here. Both Beyond Physicalism and Irreducible Mind are also available at an everyday discount on Amazon.com.
The interview that appears below provides answers written by Ed Kelly. I have known Ed for many years, and can attest to his commitment to parapsychology, and more recently to the study of research that suggests that the mind transcends the physical body. Together with his wife and colleague Dr. Emily Williams Kelly, and other authors, they produced the book Irreducible Mind, the predecessor of Beyond Physicalism (as explained below).
Can you tell us first how this book came about?
Beyond Physicalism (or BP for short) is the second main product of a fellowship organized in 1998 by Esalen co-founder Mike Murphy under the auspices of its Center for Theory and Research. Our first book, Irreducible Mind (IM for short), sought to re-assess F. W. H. Myers’s model of human personality in light of subsequent work on topics investigated by him such as psi and survival, extreme psychophysical influence, memory, dissociation and secondary centers of consciousness, NDEs and related phenomena (especially NDEs occurring under extreme physiological conditions such as deep general anesthesia and/or cardiac arrest), genius, and mystical experiences whether spontaneous or induced by meditation or psychedelics. Its main goal was to assemble in one place multiple lines of peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating the empirical inadequacy of contemporary mainstream “physicalism”, the metaphysical doctrine based upon the idea that all facts are determined by physical facts alone. Physicalist thinkers of course picture mind and consciousness strictly as products of physiological processes occurring in brains. Myers, in contrast — along with William James, Henri Bergson, F. C. S. Schiller and others — argued that the brain is better conceived as constraining, shaping, and limiting expressions of a mind and consciousness inherently much greater in capacities and scope. In Bergson’s terminology, for example, consciousness “overflows the organism”, and the brain is “an organ of attention to life”. Our central conclusion at that time was that Myers & co. seemed to be on the right track, and that the evidence supporting their views has actually grown far stronger over the past century. In a nutshell, psychology seems to have taken a 100-year detour precipitated by the rise of behaviorism, and it’s just now becoming capable of appreciating the theoretical beachhead these founding figures had already established.
Our new book is much more theory-oriented, and attempts to address the big underlying questions: Specifically, how must our individual human psyches and the world we live in be structured, in order that “rogue” phenomena of the kinds catalogued in IM can happen?
Can you next give us a summary of the new book?
Sure. It has three main parts. Part one provides necessary background, and contains just two chapters — one by me which summarizes the central arguments of IM, and one by Paul Marshall which explains why we have come to believe that mystical experiences provide crucial pieces of the metaphysical puzzle. Part two then surveys “transmission” or “filter” models of the Myers/James/IM sort from a wide variety of perspectives. Philosopher Mike Grosso starts off with a first-ever sketch of the rich intellectual history of such conceptions, focusing mainly on Western thinkers from pre-Socratic philosophers to more contemporary figures such as C. D. Broad, Aldous Huxley, and Cyril Burt. Neurobiologist David Presti and I then discuss transmission models from a psychobiological point of view, concentrating on psi, flights of genius and mystical experiences as key expressions of the deeper resources of the psyche. Three physics-based chapters come next: Henry Stapp presents his basic quantum-theoretic model of the mind/brain connection and explores its possible extensions to phenomena including psi and survival; Harald Atmanspacher and Wolfgang Fach characterize the Pauli-Jung dual-aspect monism, and show how it leads naturally to a theoretical taxonomy of exceptional experiences matching those actually occurring in clinical practice; and Bernard Carr provides a compact exposition of his own hyperdimensional theory and its explanatory potential. Then come three mystically-informed models drawn from studies in comparative religion: a chapter by Greg Shaw on Neoplatonism, one by Ian Whicher and myself on yogic philosophy and practice, and one by Loriliai Biernacki on the 11th-century Kashmiri philosopher/sage Abhinavagupta.
Part two concludes with three chapters drawing directly upon the Western metaphysical tradition: Paul Marshall presents his “monadic” theory, modified from Leibniz’s original version so as to improve its power to explain the relevant phenomena; Adam Crabtree sketches the contributions of James’s friend and colleague Charles Sanders Peirce, who took psi and survival seriously and believed his metaphysics could explain them; and Eric Weiss presents his “transphysical process metaphysics”, combining an updated version of Whitehead with insights derived from the modern Tantric philosopher/sage Sri Aurobindo.
Part three then tries to draw these extremely diverse threads together into a coherent picture. Our central contention is that theorizing from an adequately comprehensive empirical foundation that includes the phenomena catalogued in IM – especially psi, survival and mystical experiences – leads inescapably into territory traditionally occupied by the world’s major religious faiths. Specifically, we argue that emerging developments in science and comparative religion, viewed in relation to centuries of philosophical theology, point to some sort of evolutionary panentheism — splitting the differences between classical theisms and pantheisms — as our current best guess about the metaphysically ultimate nature of things. The rough picture we develop can be elaborated and tested through many kinds of further empirical research, and as emphasized especially by Mike Murphy in an inspirational concluding essay, it portends an expanded scientific world-view which can embrace empirical realities of spiritual sorts while remaining faithful to science and avoiding untenable “overbeliefs” characteristic of traditional religions. It also potentially addresses a multitude of societal ills and threats to our precious planet that can be seen as flowing directly from the currently prevailing physicalism.
What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?
I’ve come a long way from where I started! I went to work for J. B. Rhine right out of graduate school in psychology, a conventional physicalist myself except for my interest in experimental studies of psi. An early encounter with the special subject Bill Delmore erased any lingering doubts I had about the reality of psi phenomena, and started me down the path toward physiological studies of psi performance. That led in turn to an interest in apparently psi-conducive altered states of consciousness, such as deep hypnosis, trance mediumship, OBEs and NDEs, and deep meditative and mystical states. Over the next decade or so the group I assembled in Duke’s Electrical Engineering Department got far enough down this path to feel sure it could be productive, but like many others we ran out of cash. I therefore commenced a 13-year detour through somatosensory neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill, mainly carrying out EEG and fMRI functional neuroimaging studies of human cortical responses to natural tactile stimuli. In addition to earning a decent living for a change, I learned a good bit of systems-level neuroscience during that period and established a record of productivity in conventional mainstream science, but my deepest interests still lay in psychical research. Ian Stevenson’s long-time DOPS colleague Emily Williams and I married in 1998, and I went with her to those first meetings at Esalen where we conceived the plan for IM. In 2002 I retired early from UNC and moved to Charlottesville, so Emily and I could live together (!) and work more or less full-time on that first book, which took us until about mid-2006 to finish.
What’s perhaps most important here, theoretically speaking, is that for me the development of IM did a lot to dissolve what Gardner Murphy had called the “immovable object” in the survival debate — the biological objection to survival. If physicalism is true, and mind and consciousness are produced by neurophysiological processes occurring in brains, then survival is impossible, period. But the evidence assembled in IM shows, I believe, that the connections between mind and brain are in fact much looser, and can be conceptualized in the alternative fashion of filter or transmission models without violence to other parts of our scientific understanding including in particular leading-edge physics and neuroscience. That in turn opens the door — and in fact demands, in my opinion — a more radical overhaul of the prevailing physicalist metaphysics. I’m a pretty good cat-herder, though not much of a theoretician myself, and I guess that’s how I got the job as lead editor for the new book.
Why do you think these books are important and what do you hope to accomplish with them?
Like many others I was initially attracted to parapsychology by a strong sense that psi phenomena, if real, indicate that our world is significantly different in construction from that pictured in the received physicalist doctrine. I began pursuing that intuition by just “tinkering around the edges”, trying like many others to imagine small changes in the prevailing world-view that might allow it to accommodate a few additional phenomena for which we have good evidence. That after all is normal scientific practice, and a reasonable way to start. As time went by, however, I became increasingly persuaded that something much more radical is needed. I was also struck by the fact that similar rumblings of discontent were arising from a number of related disciplines that clearly have lots in common and ought to be communicating but if anything seem systematically to avoid each other. I’m thinking here particularly of disciplines such as psychical research in the broad original sense, transpersonal psychology, comparative studies of religion and mystical experience, and psychedelic studies.
I don’t want to get excessively messianic about this, but I feel that in developing these two books our Esalen fellowship has been able to put together a much bigger-than-normal picture in a more or less correct way, at least to first approximation. The picture we’re advancing as a replacement for physicalism essentially inverts the current hegemony of the physical relative to mind and consciousness. It amounts to a fundamentally spiritual worldview that is compatible with emerging science and potentially goes a long way toward reversing the pervasive “disenchantment” of the modern world with its multifarious attendant ills. I’m well aware that for some of my more experimentally-minded parapsychology colleagues in particular what we’re proposing may seem “a bridge too far”, and in the short run at least they may well be right in terms of how science and society at large will respond. But the vision we have advanced in these two books lends itself to systematic further development using conventional scientific tools, and I believe we have planted a flag well out in the direction that science itself will ultimately move. With any luck that flag should still be standing when the main forces arrive.
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Beyond Physicalism is available from Rowman & Littlefield. Purchasers from the US can call the publisher at 1-800-462-6420 and use the code 4S15KECRMA to get a 30% discount of the price, or download the Sales Flyer, fill it out and fax or mail it in. The flyer is downloadable here. Both Beyond Physicalism and Irreducible Mind are also available at an everyday discount on Amazon.com.