Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

I had the pleasure of meeting David Presti in 2009 when I was affiliated to the Division of Perceptual Studies of the University of Virginia and he came to visit the group there. He organized the book discussed here, Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal (Columbia University Press, 2018).

david presti

David Presti

David sent me the following brief biography for this blog. He is teaching professor of neurobiology, psychology, and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley. David has a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in molecular biology, both from the California Institute of Technology, and a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Oregon. For ten years he worked in the clinical treatment of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder with military veterans at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco. And for the last 15 years he has been teaching neuroscience and dialoguing about science with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.  In addition to the book discussed here, he is the author of Foundational Concepts in Neuroscience: A Brain-Mind Odyssey (W.W. Norton, 2016).

presti mind beyond brain

Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal has essays by David, and other authors who are researchers at the above-mentioned Division of Perceptual Studies. In the book all of them challenge reductionistic concepts of the mind relating the topic of consciousness to Buddhism (mainly David), and via essays about parapsychological topics.

Here is the table of contents.

Table of Contents

Foreword (Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche)

Prologue: Deepening the dialogue (David Presti & Edward Kelly)

Chapter 1: Scientific revolution and the mind-matter relation (David Presti)

Chapter 2: Near-death experiences (Bruce Greyson)

Chapter 3: Reports of part-life memories (Jim Tucker)

Chapter 4: Mediums, apparitions, and deathbed experiences (Emily Williams Kelly)

Chapter 5: Paranormal phenomena, the siddhis, and an emerging path toward

reconciliation of science and spirituality (Edward Kelly)

Chapter 6: An expanded conception of mind (David Presti)

     Notes: (David Presti)

Interview

Can you give us a brief summary of the book?  

The book is about expanding an empirical science of mind and consciousness. It approaches this issue by looking at the historical trajectory of how we understand the relationship of mind and brain in modern science – and considers the successes and the limitations of the current approach. One way forward in expanding a science of mind is to take seriously empirical data for phenomena that are not accounted for within the current explanatory framework of biophysical science – that is, empirical data documenting certain paranormal or psi phenomena. This, of course, is no surprise to the folks who already consider the study of the paranormal to be a serious scientific endeavor. In this book we specifically consider aspects of near-death experiences, small children who spontaneously talk about having lived another life (cases of the reincarnation type), apparitions associated with death or other crises, studies of mediums, and laboratory investigations of certain psi phenomena. These empirical data are addressed in four chapters authored by investigators at the University of Virginia who are respected long-time researchers on these topics.

The discussion in this book is framed in the context of the contemporary dialogue between Buddhism and science – specifically neuroscience, psychology, and physics – initiated and nurtured over the last 35 years by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Appreciating that the nature of reality and the nature of mind are among the deepest mysteries in modern science, and are also essential topics of Buddhist philosophical investigation, the Dalai Lama conjectured that a conversation between the complementary perspectives on mind and world represented by these two traditions might generate new ideas – insights that would hopefully benefit all parties in the dialogue, and perhaps, by extension, the larger community of humanity.

dalai lama

Dalai Lama

The conversation has evolved now for several decades and has contributed to interest among scientists – especially psychologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and other biomedical researchers and clinicians – in the study of how meditation practices impact physical and mental health, and on neural and physiological correlates of various aspects of meditation and mindfulness practices. However, a broader aspect of this conversation is the engagement of complementary worldviews. One, modern science, views the physical world as external to the human psyche and introduces mind/consciousness as a sort of afterthought, appearing only after conditions for its emergence have been created following billions of years of physical and biological evolution. The other, Buddhist philosophy and tradition, essentially begins with the premise that all we know is via our experience, and mind and world are likely to have a far more interdependent relation.

Topics such as those discussed in the present book, while of great interest to the community of Buddhist scholars, and of central importance to deepening our investigation and understanding of how mind and world relate, have been off-limits for discussion in any of the formal Buddhism-science dialogues to date. A variety of reasons are no doubt at play, including the belief held by many scientists that investigation of the paranormal is not a legitimate program of scientific endeavor, as well as a general lack of awareness in the scientific community of the scope of investigations that have been and are being conducted. The present book was inspired by a one-day conference hosted by an esteemed Tibetan teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, in which scientific and Buddhist perspectives on these topics were discussed.

What is your background in parapsychology, and with the topic of the book specifically?                                                                                                                      

I am a neuroscientist and university educator, working at the interface of biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics. I’ve been distantly following research in parapsychology for more than 40 years, and strengthened my connection with the field substantially 13 years ago, when I became part of a consciousness research group at the Esalen Institute that included a number of distinguished investigators in the field, and notably the researchers from the University of Virginia who would eventually contribute to the present book. This led to my spending part of a sabbatical semester in Virginia in 2009, further deepening my knowledge and connection with the field, and specifically with the topics that are major foci of discussion in the present book.

With respect to Buddhism, I have been following the contemporary engagement of Tibetan Buddhism with science for several decades. I met with the Dalai Lama in 2003 to discuss some of the questions that are addressed in this book. And I have been teaching neuroscience and dialoguing about science with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns at monastic institutions in India, Bhutan, and Nepal for 15 years – part of a program to develop science education and collaborations with Tibetan Buddhist monastics. This educational program (Science for Monks & Nuns) was inspired by the Dalai Lama, in part to enlarge the community of scientifically knowledgeable discussants among those already highly proficient in Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Why do you think your book is important and what do you hope to accomplish with it?  

As a scientist and educator, my intention is to expand the perspective we currently have on the evolving science of mind and consciousness, and I believe it is important to pursue many paths forward in this endeavor. Fostering a discussion of the empirical investigation of paranormal phenomena in the context of the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and science is one such way. This may facilitate a deeper appreciation of how to engage the worldviews of not only Asian spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, but other spiritual and religious traditions as well, in productive conversation with the complementary worldview of modern science.

In this book, we have strived to present the material in a clear, concise, and scientifically rigorous manner – and also to ground the discussion within established frameworks of history and philosophy of science. The hope is to reach scientists and other interested individuals who are open-minded enough to read and think about this material with earnest curiosity.

My hope is that this will offer a contribution to expanding the way we think about the relationship of mind and reality in contemporary science. And this is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise – for how we define or conceptualize the nature of mind, and the nature of who we are with respect to the rest of what we consider to be reality, greatly impacts everything about how we behave in the world.

 

 

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