One hundred and forty years ago, a remarkable group of Victorian thinkers came together to form the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR sought to take an open-minded, empirical approach to unusual phenomena like telepathy, mediums and ghost-sightings. Its members — which included William James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frederic Myers and, later, Gerald Heard — achieved some remarkable results, including establishing the idea of the subconscious (or ‘subliminal self’), and beginning to investigate the effects of meditation. They also gathered evidence for telepathy (a word coined by Myers), hypnotic healing, precognitive dreams and many other phenomena that did not fit neatly into the materialist paradigm.
They laid the groundwork for what became transpersonal psychology, and the empirical spirituality one finds everywhere today — in the science of mindfulness, for example, and the science of psychedelics.
Many SPR members believed it would not be long before the 200-year-old materialist paradigm would be replaced by a new idealist paradigm, in which consciousness would be recognized as the foundation of all things. It would be widely accepted that our minds are not confined to our bodies, that they can connect with one another in telepathy, that they survive the death of the body, and that that they are connected to a higher consciousness or Atman.
What happened? How come, one hundred and forty years later, we are still eagerly awaiting this ‘paradigm shift’, like cult members awaiting the end of the world?
I asked some of the leading figures in the field of transpersonal psychology and empirical spirituality. Has the long-awaited paradigm shift not happened because of weak evidence, or institutional and psychological resistance?
Dean Radin, chief scientist, Institute of Noetic Sciences
Paradigm shifts are difficult to see when you’re in the midst of one. Over the past five decades, when you look at the number of scientific, scholarly and popular conferences on consciousness, and the renewed interest in the scientific study of meditation and psychedelics, you can see a massive shift under way.
These same interests in Myers’ and James’ time were suppressed for nearly a century by both the mindless embrace of behaviorism in psychology, and by two world wars. Society decides what it finds interesting, and those interests are strongly modulated by fads, fashions, politics, and pragmatics. That said, materialism as such isn’t going to go away any time soon, because as a doctrine it’s far too successful. Also, the engines of modern civilization rely on materialism, so the status quo (meaning existing power structures) will strenuously resist any shift.
However, much of the resistance is due to a misinterpretation of what post-materialism means. It is often imagined to be a regression to the past, or a veiled revival of religious ideas (as in ‘intelligent design’). The fear I often hear expressed is that these ‘new’ ideas cannot be real because we’d have to throw away all of our textbooks and start over again. That is not the case, although it is true that textbooks are revised every couple of years just to keep pace with new knowledge. Fears about throwing existing knowledge away are expressions of emotion, not reason.
The rising paradigm is simply an expansion of current scientific ideas based on new ways of observing and understanding reality. These expansions are the lifeblood of science. E.g, the meaning of ‘material’ shifted in genuinely radical ways over the course of the 20th century. We can expect many more shifts during this century. It’s a safe bet that in the year 2119 our most sophisticated models of ourselves and the physical world, as we know them today, will be viewed as hopelessly primitive. It’s also a good bet that consciousness will remain a hot topic of research in 2119.
Steve Taylor, author of Spiritual Science and The Leap:
Why hasn’t the paradigm shift happened yet? I think it is happening, but slowly. There have been very significant changes over the last 15 years or so — e.g. the Neo-Darwinian paradigm is losing validity and being questioned even by many mainstream biologists (see ‘The Third Way in Evolution’ movement); a lot of people are questioning the materialist view that consciousness is produced by the brain; there seems to a degree of new openness to psi phenomena; and on a wider cultural level, there is increasing interest in spirituality and altered states of consciousness….
But I think the fundamental reason why the full paradigm shift hasn’t happened is because our culture’s worldview stems from our state of being, and the way we perceive the world in that state of being. You could say that it’s rooted in our psyche, and the structures of our psyche. Most people in our culture have a familiarised, automatic perception of the world around them. The world seems half-real, shadowy place, full of objects which they take for granted and don’t actually see. So the natural world seems to be an inanimate, mechanistic place.
The other main aspect of this is that our psychological structures create a sense of duality — a sense of otherness and separation. The world seems to be ‘out there,’ on the other side of our heads. Most people do not feel a sense of connection to or empathy with the world.
So I think that materialism stems mainly from these two facets of our psyche — a familiarised perception, and a sense of duality.
In some higher — or altered — states of consciousness our psychological structures change and our vision of the world changes. The world ‘comes to life,’ objects and phenomena become real and vivid, and feel a sense of connection to nature (and other human and living beings). In this state, materialism seems an absurd and irrelevant misconception.
So perhaps the slow shift to ‘post-materialism’ that I think is occurring now is a result of more people experiencing different states of consciousness.
There are other things too, of course — materialism gives people a sense of control over the world, provides a narrative that seems to makes sense of the world and our lives, and as a belief system it provides a sense of identity — but I think the psychological factors I’ve mentioned are most important.
Rupert Sheldrake, author of Science and Spiritual Practices
I think the main reason is that the materialist/atheist/Enlightenment belief system dominates the universities and educational system, which is ideologically opposed to anything to do with religion, especially Christianity. But things are changing slowly through the rise of consciousness studies and the scientific investigation of spiritual practices (as discussed in my recent books Science and Spiritual Practices and Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work). Many atheists now meditate, and spiritual practices are spreading among non-religious people.
David Lorimer, programme director of the Scientific and Medical Network
Historically, there has been a move from supernaturalism to naturalism and towards explaining mind in terms of matter. Substance dualism has become very unpopular, although there is a recent revival of idealism and panpsychism (Strawson, Koch) as a move beyond materialism.
The influence of David Hume’s essay on miracles is still enormous in my view, in spite of its demolition by Alfred Russel Wallace and others — most people don’t know this essay, And Wallace is an interesting case in point as the co-founder of natural selection and a spiritualist. The scepticism of Hume has been transformed into pseudo-scepticism as an ideology with its rhetoric of defending science and reason. You probably know that the parapsychology and complementary medicine Wikipedia pages are maintained by the guerrilla sceptics under Susan Gerbic — there is a good article on Rupert Sheldrake’s website about this. This is what Mark Woodhouse called a paradigm war. There has been a shift of authority away from the church towards science, which in its materialistic form is the new orthodoxy. This means that people like Rupert Sheldrake are heretics as the orthodoxy / heresy division is maintained. This all has social and political dimensions in universities, which we are in fact looking at as part of the current phase of the Galileo Commission. It is dangerous for young researchers to question the materialist orthodoxy and suggest so-called fringe topics for PhD’s. The psychology department at the University of Northampton has recently been downgraded, mainly because much of its publication in the parapsychology area. So there is a self-reinforcing loop.
Another factor that I identified in the introduction to the recent Galileo Commission report is philosophical illiteracy and a failure to distinguish between propositions and presuppositions and therefore to acknowledge a philosophical underpinning to scientific materialism. Fear of ridicule and loss of reputation is a powerful motive militating against change. However, I did sense more opening at the Interlaken conference, and I thought that Jeffrey Kripal put his finger on a crucial point, which I also discussed, that there are no impossible facts. There is also a consensus ignorance of the kind of evidence presented in the Galileo Report and an assumption called promissory materialism by Sir John Eccles and Sir Karl Popper that consciousness will eventually be explained in material terms.
Andreas Sommer, historian of psychical research
The question seems to rest on certain assumptions, e.g. 1. some anomalous data can only be interpreted in terms of a hidden order of spiritual purpose and meaning; 2. this order must be revealed sooner or later according to some teleological principle; 3. A sufficient number of people are able to digest and accept this truth to effect global change. While I have strong sympathies for folks subscribing to these beliefs as long as they motivate compassion and bring out the best in people, personally I doubt that any of these assumptions are unproblematic.
But granted there is some hidden spiritual order, I think explanations for the failure of achieving a “paradigm shift” might be as mundane as the absence of a powerful lobby influencing public opinion. There are of course major bodies such as the Templeton Foundation, which has pumped millions into fostering science-religion dialogues. But while Templeton have funded sophisticated historical work questioning Western claims of the perennial conflict between science and religion, it seems like they are mainly interested in broadly defending Christian theology. And historically speaking, the opposition to radically empirical research on, say, the question of life after death, has been at least as strong from orthodox religious folk as it has been from advocates of scientific “materialism” (there are actually many historical figures in whom these supposedly fixed boundaries overlap).
At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I have to say the current chaos of opinion on practically all important matters not limited to politics and deep existential or spiritual questions doesn’t inspire great hope. Influencers of public opinion are not likely to suddenly start listening to what real or supposed opponents have to say.
As for me, I think the paradigm shift idea always had a somewhat millenarian aspect to it. People like Frederic Myers, Sri Aurobindo and Gerald Heard thought we were entering an age of Aquarius, so to speak, in which telepathic powers would be widely developed and mankind would transcend to a new level of super-consciousness. If anything, we seem to be regressing at the moment.
Reading a biography of Thomas Huxley, I was struck by the extent to which new ideas — Darwinism, say, or monetarism — are established through networks of power. Thomas Huxley made sure he and his fellow Darwinists occupied the seats of power in British science, and they ruthlessly went after anyone who disagreed with them. They were soldiers hungry for the ‘paradigm war’. One doesn’t see anything like that degree of organisation or bellicosity among the champions of the new paradigm of consciousness.
The new paradigm is flourishing in popular culture — witness the popularity of mindfulness, yoga, psychedelics and so on — but it has made little impact on the worldview of academia, where truth is officially produced. Its evidence base — regarding telepathy, near-death experiences, visions, dreams, the placebo effect and other phenomena — is valid (even skeptics say that telepathy has now been scientifically proven) but seem pretty useless from a materialist perspective. We are impressed, in the materialist paradigm, by ideas that make life materially better. Give us a new invention and we will worship you. The new paradigm is not obviously materially useful — it merely tells us a new story of who we are, how powerful our minds are, how we can liberate ourselves from suffering, how we’re connected to all things, and what may happen after death. It changes things at the deep level, rather than the level of particular material inventions.
I wonder if the materialist paradigm has flourished over the last 350 years because it’s been tied to the Enlightenment religion of progress and humanism. Nature is an inanimate machine, humans can control and exploit nature, human life will keep getting better. That worldview was turbo-powered by the extraction and burning of natural resources. It’s now breaking down. I have no idea what new worldview will emerge from the rubble. I hope it’s this new paradigm of consciousness we have been awaiting for so long.
But I remember the words of William James: the scientific study of religion is no substitute for religion itself. It lacks the myth, ritual and community of religion. Amid the death of our old civilisation and the painful birth of the new, we will need something stronger than books, lectures, and courses in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Article originally published in Medium.