Book review by David Lorimer
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Bellevue Literary Press, 2019, 239 pp., $19.99, p/b
A New Cosmic Outlook
Jeffrey Kripal is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University and chairs the board of the Esalen Institute. He gave two brilliant and lucid talks at the science of consciousness meeting in Interlaken in June, and this superb book fully reflects these qualities. The flip of the title refers to epiphanies of mind that transform the outlook of the experiencer in the direction of holding consciousness rather than matter to be primary. This has immense implications for the future of knowledge, as the book explains in detail, beginning with experiences currently regarded as impossible within the scientific framework, then looking at flipped scientists and philosophers, the relationship between consciousness and cosmos, how symbols mediate meaning, and at the future politics of knowledge.
I was struck by Tom McLeish (see review above) quoting Charles Darwin’s son writing about a special quality leading him to make discoveries: ‘it was the power of never letting exceptions pass unnoticed.’ In the consciousness field, for exceptions read anomalies. Nomos is order so an anomaly is something that does not fit into the currently accepted framework of assumptions. Far from never letting exceptions pass unnoticed, the scientific establishment goes out of its way to ignore and suppress findings inconsistent with its basic philosophy, exerting social and professional peer pressure in order to keep people in line. For Kripal, this materialistic framework is not wrong, but only half right (or upside down), applying as it does to the outside of things and adopting a third person perspective. As Alfred Russel Wallace and Lawrence LeShan have argued, there is no such thing as an impossible fact. So if your theory is inconsistent with the fact, it is the theory that must be modified rather than the fact set aside as an anecdote or mere coincidence. It is just not good enough to say that ‘such things that happen all the time cannot happen at all.’ The stakes are high, though, relating as they do to what is considered real or unreal in terms of ultimate ontology.
Kripal is very clear that present-day materialist orthodoxy is pure ideology consisting of unexamined assumptions about the nature of reality, as argued in the Galileo Commission Report. Moreover, as William James observed over 100 years ago and the author reasserts, ‘a materialist interpretation works so well only inasmuch as it rigorously leaves out everything that it cannot explain, including individual, subjective experiences. Put differently, materialism only “wins” as long as it gets to declare the rules of the game.’ (p. 105) This means that classical materialist theories of human consciousness ‘have to deny, erase, and take off the table so much of human experience to retain the illusion of the completeness of the materialist model.’ (p. 125) Elsewhere, the author rightly observes that ‘our conclusions are really a function of our exclusions. For him, the humanities are the study of consciousness coded in culture, and assume greater importance where consciousness is considered fundamental rather than incidental; this may eventually be equated with studying the interior expressions of quantum states. Commenting on William James’s distinction between the production and transmission models of brain and consciousness, he observes that the first is almost completely dominant, corresponding historically to Aristotle dominating Plato. Those familiar with the literature of ‘impossible facts’ tend to be much more open to a transmission or filter view.
The chapter on flipped scientists tells the stories of Eben Alexander, Hans Berger, A.J. Ayer, Barbara Ehrenreich, Marjorie Hines Woollacott and the sceptic Michael Shermer. Apart from the last case, the direction of travel is to see the universe as VALIS, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System, a view consistent with quantum physics. This leads into more general considerations about the relationship between consciousness and cosmos, including the implications of non-locality and entanglement whereby ‘it is as if everything is already one thing and is simply responding to itself, involving itself through time.’ (p. 103) This thought is taken up later when looking at the idea of a block universe. Kripal considers five related new developments in contemporary philosophy of mind: panpsychism, dual aspect monism including Jung and Harald Atmanspacher (who chaired the Interlaken meeting), Alexander Wendt’s quantum mind, Philip Goff’s cosmopsychism and Bernardo Kastrup’s idealism, all of which imply a specific view on the relationship between mind and matter. This is well worth reading in detail.
In the chapter entitled ‘Symbols in Between’, Kripal focuses on questions of representation and meaning, noting that mathematics joins the knower and known, the mental and the material, but also that, for experiencers, mystical states of oneness and connectedness participate in the foundation of meaning and ‘are the most important and meaningful forms of knowledge that a human being can possess.’ (p. 137) The word symbol derived from the Greek sym-ballein, which means to throw together, so connectedness is inherent. At this point he brings in further considerations from Kastrup to the effect that reality may be an expression or function of consciousness as imagination, that ‘imagination may be reality’, and that we need to evolve a language of resonance, tone, vibration and energy that is capable of penetrating more deeply into oneness that we are and out of which we emerge – this put me in mind of the somewhat neglected work of Douglas Fawcett and Walter Russell. He suggests that mystical experiences of light and energy may be the inside corresponding to mathematically mapped light and energy mapped from the outside. This metaphysic is not either/or, but rather both/and – it is participatory where subject and object are not separate but entangled.
In a chapter on the future politics of knowledge, Kripal sets out five basic skill sets: reflexivity is an intellectual form of the flip, fair and just comparison of others, an expanded anthropology or ‘religion of no religion’ connected to a larger purpose, a cosmic humanism where the human is an expression of the entire universe, and finally a deep, dark ecology understood as self-care and providing an ontological foundation for politics and the realisation that it is our worldview that has generated the crises we face. All this entails the primacy of the whole over the part, a mindful universe that is alive and conscious. This bold and eloquent book delivers a necessary ‘ontological shock’ and maps a potentially expanded future of knowledge where the ‘inside’ of matter is mind – surely a crucial step to take and one that completely reframes our understanding of consciousness and reality.