Book review by David Lorimer

David E. Presti with Bruce Greyson, Edward F. Kelly, Emily Williams Kelly and Jim B. Tucker
Columbia University Press, 2019, 213 pp., £24, h/b

ISBN 978-0-231-18956-9


Buddhism, Science and the Paranormal


This evidence-based book stands right behind the intent represented by the Galileo Commission and our recent report in terms of calling for a shift in physicalist metaphysical assumptions to allow an expanded science that can accommodate the kind of research presented here – ‘a radically inclusive empiricism’. Conversations between Buddhism and neuroscience/psychology being going on under the aegis of the Dalai Lama for 25 years with the Mind and Life Institute. Tibetan Buddhists are familiar with the content of this book relating research in near death experiences, memories of past lives, apparitions and what they – and Dean Radin –  would call siddhis. These areas of research cannot be adequately accounted for on the basis of current scientific theory, as in fact William James realised over 100 years ago. In the last sentence of a book written in 1892, he urges readers ‘never to forget that the natural-science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things.’ (p. 19)


If mainstream readers study the contents of this book with an open mind, they might come to agree that ‘the science of mind is poised for the entrance of revolutionary new ideas – and perhaps on the verge of a paradigm shift such as only occurs very infrequently in the history of science.’  (p. xxi) David Presti contributes the first and last chapters on scientific revolution and the mind-matter relation, and an expanded conception of mind. In between, we have authoritative chapters by Bruce Greyson on near death experiences, Jim Tucker on past life memories, Emily Williams Kelly on mediums, apparitions and deathbed experiences, and finally Edward Kelly on paranormal phenomena and an emerging path towards reconciling science and spirituality. This is all discussion of the highest order by leading experts associated with the Department of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) founded by Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia.


Even seasoned readers will find their knowledge deepened and broadened by the detailed analyses of these fields. Bruce Greyson rightly comments that ‘the question raised by these cases and many others is how we can reconcile a brain that is not functioning with a mind functioning better than ever.’ (p. 32) Further, ‘this enhanced mental functioning while the brain is impaired suggests that there is more going on with the mind than its being a simple consequence of brain physiology.’ (p. 34) Bruce provides a great deal of statistical data from his own extensive studies, also nailing down, contra the evasive tactics of sceptics, that many veridical perceptions in NDE’s – 86% in a study of 93 cases by Janice Holden were corroborated by independent witnesses, and 92% were completely accurate in every detail. Moreover, they are ‘clearly anchored in time to period of minimal or absent brain activity, rendering them inexplicable in terms of conventional physicalist neurobiology.’ (p. 39) Exactly this point is also made by Harald Walach in the Galileo Report, putting the burden of proof firmly on sceptics.


Jim Tucker systematically reports on past life memories from the DOPS database, including a number of actual cases such as James Leininger and others where both birthmarks and corresponding memories are present. He explains the components of their strength-of-case scale assigning points to birthmarks and birth defects, veridical statements about the previous life, correlated behaviours, and distance between the two families. Findings show that more past life residue carries over in the stronger cases. In addition, memories of the interval between lives are consistent with corresponding reports of the afterlife.


Emily Williams Kelly points out that the evidence for survival is a matter of convergence and quality, so that an opinion on the topic ‘should be based on an awareness of the breadth and depth of the evidence available, and not on uninformed assumptions or one or two isolated examples.’ (p. 71) She then analyses the number of evidential cases involving mediumship, apparitions and deathbed experiences where the critical importance lies in the detail and facts that could not have been known by the sitter. She looks at these in terms of the ‘filter theory’ of the relationship between brain and mind developed initially at the end of the 19th century and updated in the University of Virginia volumes, Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism. Edward Kelly continues in the same vein in the following chapter on paranormal phenomena, also relating his own journey. Psi phenomena are threatening to mainstream scientists because ‘if the standard “production” model of brain-mind relations is correct, then these things simply could not happen. The fact that they do happen means that something is deeply wrong with the model, and we have got enlarge our current scientific framework in some way that will enable us to accommodate them.’ (p. 93) In my view, and that of the authors, this has now become an imperative, but the question is how to facilitate the process and transition.


This leads seamlessly into the final chapter on an expanded conception of mind. The fundamental limitation of current mainstream neuroscience, philosophy and psychology lies in its assumption that ‘consciousness is completely explicable in some straightforward and localised way by neural processes in the brain and body.’ (p. 123) This is exactly why we are inviting scientists to ‘look through the telescope’ at this kind of evidence that has historically been ignored or dismissed. Some scientists feel that this move would undermine the whole basis of science, but this is simply not true – what it does undermine is a limiting assumption that needs to be consigned to history. This should lead to excitement rather than disturbance, but the materialist assumption is deeply and even unconsciously embedded, then reinforced by conservative social structures within science. This fine book should be widely read and debated as we try to formulate a radical new perspective where mind is a central part of nature rather than an epiphenomenon of neural processes. This will lead to a new and constructive relationship between science and spirituality.