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Science is Being Bashed by Academics Who Should Know Better

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

For some reason the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly publication that details doings (and available jobs) in American academia, has shown a penchant for bashing science and promoting anti-materialist views (see here for their piece defending woo-driven evolution). I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with supporting the humanities against the dreaded incursion of science—the bogus disease of “scientism.”

That’s certainly the case with a big new article in the Chronicle, “Visions of the impossible: how ‘fantastic’ stories unlock the nature of consciousness,” by Jeffrey J. Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University in Texas. Given his position, it’s not surprising that Kripal’s piece is an argument about Why There is Something Out There Beyond Science. And although the piece is long, I can summarize its thesis in two sentences (these are my words, not Kripal’s):

“People have had weird experiences, like dreaming in great detail about something happening before it actually does; and because these events can’t be explained by science, the most likely explanation is that they are messages from some non-material realm beyond our ken. If you combine that with science’s complete failure to understand consciousness, we must conclude that naturalism is not sufficient to understand the universe, and that our brains are receiving some sort of ‘transhuman signals.’”

That sounds bizarre, especially for a distinguished periodical, but anti-naturalism seems to be replacing postmodernism as the latest way to bash science in academia. Every opponent of “scientism,” for example, seems to cite Thomas Nagel’s recent book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False as if it were authoritative, never noting that that book has been roundly trounced by academics. (Nagel’s book argues that evolution is driven by some non-Goddy but immaterial and teleological force that science can’t understand.)

Kripal begins his essay by recounting two anecdotes (one from Mark Twain) about how people sensed the deaths of their relatives, complete with accurate details, well before they knew about those deaths. Kripal argues that these cases of precognition are common, suggesting that there’s something out there that science can’t explain. But he doesn’t note the far more frequent instances of “precognition” that don’t come true and aren’t reported, nor the notorious tricks that human memory can play. There are plenty of cases, for example, of humans selectively editing their memories in retrospect to conform to what they—or others—want to believe. This alone makes peculiar anecdotes like Twain’s deeply suspect, or at least in need of scientific confirmation. Such stories are the stock in trade of psychics and aficionados of the paranormal, but have never stood up to critical scrutiny.

I’ll give a few quotes showing how Kripal proceeds from these anecdotes to his main “X-Files” thesis:

The early-Victorian researchers had it right: They called dreams like the two with which I began “veridical hallucinations,” or hallucinations corresponding to real events.

We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today. We tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through, at least in these extreme cases. Somehow Twain’s dreaming imagination knew that his brother would be dead in a few weeks—it even knew what kind of bouquet would sit on his brother’s breathless chest. Similarly, the wife’s dream-vision knew that her husband had just been killed and where his body lay. In those events, words like “imagined” and “real,” “inside” and “outside,” “subject” and “object,” “mental” and “material” cease to have much meaning. And yet such words name the most basic structures of our knowing.

Or not knowing.

Kripal then discusses why laboratory tests of paranormal phenomena—phenomena like the “remote viewing” study subjected to James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge—invariably fail. The usual excuse among advocates of woo is that the lab somehow ruins the vibes that promote ESP, telekinesis, and the like. But Kripal, in the tradition of pseudoscience, can explain away these failures:

Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories, the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. No one is in danger or dying. Your neighborhood is not on fire. The professional debunker’s insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile laboratory is little more than a mark of his own ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question. To play by those rules is like trying to study the stars at midday. It is like going to the North Pole to study those legendary beasts called zebras. No doubt just anecdotes.

Context matters. Methods that rely on or favor extreme conditions are employed in science all the time to discover and demonstrate knowledge. As Aldous Huxley pointed out long ago in his own defense of “mystical” experiences suggestive of spirit or soul, we have no reason to deduce that water is composed of two gases glued together by invisible forces. We know this only by exposing water to extreme conditions, by traumatizing it, and then by detecting and measuring the gases with technology that no ordinary person possesses or understands. The situation is eerily analogous with impossible scenarios like those of Twain, the wife, and the Swedish seer. They are generally available only in traumatic situations, when the human being is being “boiled” in illness, stroke, coma, danger, or near-death.

Really? Is it even rational to compare extreme physical conditions imposed on gases in the lab to human trauma? And of course Kripal doesn’t explain why those “messages from the beyond” have to involve trauma. Most psychic phenomena, in fact, don’t involve stress or death, including the psychic powers regularly claimed by saints, mystics, and yogis. Further, Kripal doesn’t tell us why the great majority of people who die or suffer in the absence of their loved ones don’t send telepathic messages conveying their distress. Do they lack the right kind of transmitter? And why aren’t we all receiving the numerous psychic signals which must, after all, be crisscrossing the atmosphere like radio waves?

In fact, Kripal thinks that non-traumatic precognition does work: he suggests that “psychics sometimes do get rich”—his response to the frequent question of why psychics eke out a middling existence when, with their powers, they could make a killing on the stock market. Actually, contra Kripal, I don’t know any people who have done so using their mystical powers. And why can’t psychics predict other things, like where the Malaysia Airlines jet is? After all, they’re not doing that in the lab, and there’s plenty of loss and trauma.

Kripal’s agenda then becomes clear: he’s sick of those damn scientists telling everyone that matter, energy, and the laws of nature are all there is. He’s further repelled by the claim that, based on its record, science is in principle capable of explaining all natural phenomena. That leaves little room for religion or any form of woo.

And then of course there’s the perennial problem of consciousness. Although Kripal doesn’t push a religious explanation too far, he clearly thinks that science’s supposed failure to explain consciousness means that science can never explain it, and that consciousness must thus be a non-natural phenomenon that will forever elude naturalistic analysis:

In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.

Actually, as I’ve pointed out many times, science does not take “nonmaterial” or spiritual phenomena off the table. It’s perfectly acceptable to test psychic and paranormal phenomena like ESP and spiritual healing, and in fact those tests have been done. But they always fail, and so, as Laplace said, we no longer need those explanations. It’s not that we’ve taken non-materialism off the table—it’s simply fallen off the table.

Kripal clearly denies that consciousness comes from our brains and obeys the law of nature (my emphasis):

We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

... After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, as far as we can tell, this presence is sui generis. It is its own thing. We know of nothing else like it in the universe, and anything we might know later we will know only through this same consciousness. Many want to claim the exact opposite, that consciousness is not its own thing, is reducible to warm, wet tissue and brainhood. But no one has come close to showing how that might work. Probably because it doesn’t.

First of all, nobody says that the phenomenon of consciousness doesn’t exist. It clearly does, for we all experience it. And yes, we don’t yet fully understand its evolutionary origins and neurological underpinnings. But science has made enormous progress in understanding both of these, especially how consciousness is a brain-bound phenomenon. We can alter our consciousness through electrical stimulation or the ingestion of chemicals like LSD; we can efface it with anesthetics and then restore it; we can read signals in the brain and tell what a person is imagining; and we’ve begun to make plausible models of how the brain’s circuitry can store and retrieve our thoughts. In fact, neuroscientists have a good idea about what parts of the brain and what types of neural activity are critical for consciousness. Finally, when the brain expires, so does consciousness. Nobody has been able to communicate with the dead.

As for the evolution of consciousness, well, there’s a clear evolutionary advantage for a complex mammal to perceive and monitor its environment, including the psychology and behavior of our fellows, and so adjust our behavior to promote our survival and reproduction—all the things that consciousness does for us. Subjectivity—the feeling of “I-ness” that many claim is a great mystery, may simply be an ineluctable byproduct of our highly evolved system for processing information.

This is not to say that we understand everything, for neuroscience is a young field. But the progress has been remarkable, and gives us confidence that everything that constitutes our consciousness does indeed reside in that “warm, wet tissue.” And every bit of this progress has been achieved through reason, experimental study, and adherence to naturalism, the idea that the universe is governed solely by empirical laws. None of the paranormal or supernatural notions floated by Kripal—the teleological, the divine, ESP, or those uncanny precognitive anecdotes—have advanced our understanding of consciousness one iota.

Then comes Kripal’s inevitable kvetching about how science has marginalized his field:

Humanists have paid a heavy price for their shrinking act. We are more or less ignored now by both the general public and our colleagues in the natural sciences, whose disciplines, of course, make no sense at all outside of universal observations, and who often work from bold cosmic visions, wildly counterintuitive models (think ghostlike multiverses and teleporting particles), and evolutionary spans of time that make our “histories” look insignificant and boring by comparison.

I am aware, of course, that there are signs of life in the humanities. I am thinking in particular of the development of “big history” in historiography and of the new materialisms, vitalisms, and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy, as evident in Thomas Nagel’s recent well-publicized doubts about the adequacy of neo-Darwinian materialism, expressed in his book Mind and Cosmos.

Well, Nagel’s book was well-publicized but not well received. It was a work of philosophy of science, and was criticized heavily by both scientists and philosophers. The people who liked Nagel’s message that There Is More Than Naturalism were the theologians and the humanists who feel that science is stepping on their toes. I doubt that the “vitalisms and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy” have gotten much traction beyond Nagel.

Finally, Kripal uses David Eagleman’s example of a Bushman finding a transistor radio, and, fiddling with its wires, decides that the voices it emanates derive from its circuits, because when those circuits are disrupted, the voices go away. (This reminds me of the paternalistic movie “The Gods Must be Crazy,” also involving the Bushmen—who, by the way, are usually called the San). How can that San individual possibly imagine the presence of radio stations, distant cities, and civilizations? It is beyond his ken.

So, says Kripal, our brain is like that radio, for our consciousness receives messages whose source is also beyond our ken. Those messages are “transhuman”: beyond the domains of naturalism and materialism—and sometimes come from the dead.

William James, Henri Bergson, and Aldous Huxley all argued the same long before Eagleman. Bergson even used the same radio analogy. This is where the historian of religions—this one, anyway—steps in. There are, after all, countless other clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.

[The radio model] puts back on the table much of the evidence that we have taken off as impossible or nonexistent (all that Platonic stuff about the human spirit). In this same generous, symmetrical spirit, it is not that materialism is wrong. It is that it is half-right.

Such a radio model certainly has no problem understanding how Mark Twain could have known about his brother’s imminent funeral, why a wife could know about her husband’s distant car wreck, or why a Swedish scientist could track a fire 50 miles away. The mind can know things distant in space and time because it is not limited to space or time. Mind is not “in” the radio or brain box. The payoff here is immense: The impossible suddenly becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes predictable.

What we have been doing for the past few centuries is studying the construction and workings of the physical radio. But the radio was built for the radio signal (and vice versa). How can we understand the one without the other? It is time to come to terms with both. It is time to invite Plato back to the table—to restore the humanities to consciousness. The rest will follow.

But our brain is not anything like a radio. The information processed in that organ comes not from a transhuman ether replete with other people’s thoughts, but from signals sent from one neuron to another, ultimately deriving from the effect of our physical environment on our senses. If you cut your optic nerves, you go blind; if you cut the auditory nerves, you become deaf. Without such sensory inputs, whose mechanisms we understand well, we simply don’t get information from the spooky channels promoted by Kripal.

When science manages to find reliable evidence for that kind of clairvoyance, I’ll begin to pay attention. Until then, the idea of our brain as a supernatural radio seems like a kind of twentieth-century alchemy—the resort of those whose will to believe outstrips their respect for the facts. 

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.