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Embracing the Unexplained, Part 2

It was an odd but invigorating media cycle for me last week.

The week began with The Chronicle’s publication of my essay on why the “impossible” experiences of precognition, clairvoyance, and mystical experience may well be keys to unlocking the nature of consciousness and the mind-brain relationship and why the sciences and the humanities need one another to address those questions.

The piece quickly became the object of a materialist screed in The New Republic by Jerry A. Coyne entitled “Science Is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better.” I actually share some of Coyne’s calmer questions and open-minded concerns (like why psychic phenomena are reported in both traumatic and nontraumatic contexts). What troubled me were the ways that Coyne distorted my positions through invective and exaggeration, blatantly misrepresented the findings of parapsychology (“they always fail”), and effortlessly conflated science, rationalism, and materialism, as if there were no ways to be scientific and rational without adopting his own particular brand of antireligious materialism.

Here, for example, is how he glossed my suggestion that it is trauma, extreme emotion, and the grisly sufferings of death that most commonly invoke robust psychic phenomena: “The usual excuse among advocates of woo is that the lab somehow ruins the vibes that promote ESP, telekinesis, and the like.” Somehow my serious reflection on the absence of horrible suffering in the laboratory as a key catalyst of mind-beyond-brain phenomena became a flippant “ruining the vibes.” He also described me as “sick of those damn scientists” and had me “bashing” science.

What I actually argued is that humanists have not taken the sciences seriously enough and that humanists need the sciences as a corrective to our own dogmatic relativism and constructivism, even as the sciences need the humanities as a corrective to their own dogmatic materialism. None of that, however, came through in the response of Coyne, who is a perfect avatar of the Aristotle of my philosophical sound-bite on the present relationship between the humanities and the sciences: “Plato may admire Aristotle, but Aristotle sneers at Plato.”

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, though, Coyne drew absolute conclusions from absolutely false statements: “Finally,” he declared toward the end of his piece, “when the brain expires, so does consciousness. Nobody has been able to communicate with the dead.” The first statement is simply an assumption. It is a perfectly reasonable assumption in the production model of the brain-mind relationship, but it is an open question in the transmission or “radio” model (destroying a radio, after all, does nothing to the radio signal).

The second statement, that “nobody has been able to communicate with the dead,” is patently false. The historical record is filled with honest and sincere people reporting exactly that. In fact, I began my essay with just such an event, as reported by a forensic pathologist. But none of this, of course, is genuine data for Coyne. He sneers at all of it as “woo,” takes it all off the academic table, and puts it in the trash of pseudoscience and professors of religious studies.

But that is not an intellectual argument. That is name-calling and an attempt to control and manipulate the data so that the “proper” conclusions are reached. My point is a simple one: If you put the “impossible” data on the table, you will arrive at different conclusions.

As Coyne was building his straw man of me as an “advocate of woo” who “bashes” science, The Chronicle was quoting me in a news article, this time on the Hindu fundamentalist assaults on historical scholarship on Hinduism. This is a nearly two-decade story that began with a six-year censorship campaign in both the United States and India directed at my dissertation and first book, Kali’s Child (1995), on the sexual (read: material) dimensions of the erotic mysticism of a famous Hindu saint. It culminated a few weeks ago with Penguin India’s “pulping” of my mentor Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus.

Somehow, in roughly the same period, I managed to be an “offense” to both materialist ideologues and fundamentalist censors. The materialists painted me as a science-bashing religionist, while the fundamentalists portrayed me as a religion-bashing pervert and reductive materialist. The two groups sound remarkably alike, and their angry rhetoric and penchant for misrepresentation are virtually indistinguishable.

Then, last Sunday, The New York Times published Barbara Ehrenreich’s profound little piece “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment,” in which she described her own “hard-core” atheism, her scientific training, and a “shattering” mystical experience that she had at 17, during which she saw the physical world burst into flame and knew “a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.”

Feeling no need to invoke anything supernatural, she ended the piece suggesting that the usual dismissals of such experiences as mental breakdown, chemical imbalance, or subjective illusion may have been “a cop-out.” She mused that someday “we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe.” She even suggested that “our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments.” It is not enough, she insisted, for neuroscience to speak of how we are “wired” for those experiences (as if the experiences were simply products of the wires). She is much more interested in the actual living presence that appears to a brain when those wires finally connect and we are confronted with something furiously, blazingly real. In my own terms, she is suggesting a transmission or radio model of the human brain and the existence of a transhuman form of consciousness. Yep.

As if that were not enough, Ehrenreich made pretty much every move I had called for in my essay. She recognized that her scientific training had blinded her to how common those experiences are. She turned to the humanities for help—that is, to the study of comparative mystical literature (in the figure of the German theologian and historian Rudolf Otto, who helped found my own discipline). She called for more study of those “shattering” subjective events. And she observed exactly what I had observed about the professional fear that creates a false sense that these events are rare: “I suspect we would have more reports of uncanny experiences from ordinary, rational people if it were not for the fear of being judged insane or at least unstable.”

I hope Coyne was reading the hard-core atheist and rationalist mystic Barbara Ehrenreich. I also hope my fundamentalist censors were reading Coyne. Both types of readers have me very wrong. As for Ehrenreich, in my humble opinion, she has it all exactly right. This is precisely where we need to go if we are serious about understanding the deeper nature of consciousness and our place in the cosmos: toward Ehrenreich’s synthesis of the mystical and the rational. Here at last Plato admires Aristotle, and Aristotle admires Plato.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is a professor of religious studies at Rice University. He is the author, most recently (with Ata Anzali, Andrea R. Jain, and Erin Prophet), of the textbook Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms (Wiley, 2014).

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