Review of "Beyond Physicalism"

By Don Salmon

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum and voted for publication by forum members. All opinions expressed are those of the author.)


Beyond Physicalism” – the result of years of work by the same Esalen-based group that produced “Irreducible Mind” – is, I believe, one of the most important signs in recent years of the impending global shift in consciousness predicted by such 20th century luminaries as Jean Gebser, Teillhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo. Previously, I had thought that perhaps Dean Radin’s 1997, “The Conscious Universe” was one of the more pivotal books in terms of pointing toward this imminent shift. However, “Beyond Physicalism” is such a broad, highly intelligent (and highly readable) volume that I think it will come to be seen as the sign of a major turning point for modern science.

For several decades, Michael Murphy has sponsored a variety of seminars at Esalen (the institute he founded) aimed at advancing human potential. “Beyond Physicalism” (like Kelly’s previous edited volume, “Irreducible Mind”) is the product of the longest running seminar in Esalen history, the “Big SUR Seminar,” also known as the SURvival Seminar, or SURsem for short. A diverse array of scholars and practitioners of various meditative and growth disciplines – including neuroscientists, physicists, psychiatrists, historians and philosophers – have had wide-ranging conversations regarding the empirical evidence for human survival of death, as suggested by research on mystical experiences, psychical phenomena, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and children who are able to remember past lives (you can find supplementary material for “Beyond Physicalism” at the website for the “Esalen Institute Center for Theory and Research (CTR).”

As Alan Wallace wrote of “Beyond Physicalism,” it goes a long way toward “blowing away the fog of ignorance and confusion that materialists have imposed on the scientific community and humanity at large.” Lest you think Wallace is going too far in accusing the materialists of creating a “fog of ignorance and confusion,” Ed Kelly writes eloquently in the introduction of the “astonishing hubris [of materialists who] dismiss en masse the collective experience and wisdom of a large proportion of our forebears, including persons widely recognized as pillars of all human civilization.”

Kelly describes the target group for “Beyond Physicalism” as “scientifically-minded, intelligent adults,” fitting generally into the “spiritual but not religious” category. They are skeptical both of scientism (‘fundamaterialism’, as Neal Grossman refers to it) and religious fundamentalism. SURsem made a commendable effort to insure that scholars of both science and the humanities contributed. In the introduction, Kelly has an amusing description of his shock at the extent to which academic religious scholars adhere to an almost dogmatic brand of materialism, allegedly to maintain objectivity (this reminds me of the head of one prestigious religious department which had a number of excellent courses in Buddhism. When asked if he would hire the Buddha as a professor, he said no, because the Buddha could not be objective about Buddhism!).

Whereas “Irreducible Mind” was focused mostly on presenting the research that supports the idea that consciousness is not limited to brain activity, “Beyond Physicalism” goes far beyond, exploring the ways that paranormal and mystical experiences can fit into what the authors repeatedly refer to as an “expanded scientific worldview.” I believe their choice of the evolutionary vision of Frederic Myers and the radical empiricism of William James is excellent, providing a solid grounding in science while pointing toward a dramatic revision of our understanding of the universe. As Alan Wallace puts it (Wallace has referred repeatedly to James’ “radical empiricist” approach), “[‘Beyond Physicalism’ represents a] return to the true spirit of open-minded empiricism that heralded the rise of modern science.”

Overview

“Beyond Physicalism” has three parts – Chapters 1 and 2 in PART I, Chapters 3 to 13 in PART II, and chapters 14 and 15 in PART III.

In Chapter I, Ed Kelly (in what I think is his clearest writing to date) reviews the main arguments for various unusual paranormal and mystic phenomena (Kelly’s group commonly refers to them as “rogue” phenomena) presented in “Irreducible Mind.” He quite wisely informs us that SURsem’s aim is to insure that even the most abstruse theorizing is always grounded in careful empirical investigation.

In Chapter 2, Paul Marshall describes various theoretical challenges that mystical experience presents to the physicalist paradigm. His descriptions of such things as expansive knowing (also often referred to as “gnosis;” what Sri Aurobindo calls “knowledge by identity” as compared to our usual “separative” or dualistic knowledge), altered time sense and overwhelming feelings of unity are very well articulated, showing that mystical experience – particularly the “extroverted” type that Marshall is especially interested in – can in fact be described, at least to some extent.

PART II presents several of the theoretical perspectives that the SURsem group thought had the most potential to incorporate the various “rogue” phenomena described in “Irreducible Mind.”

In Chapter 3, Michael Grosso focuses on the filter model of Myers and James, while providing a broader history of relevant thinkers. Eloquently written and quite accessible, his historical overview shows how odd the current focus on physicalist theories is from this greater historical perspective.

Ed Kelly and David Presti follow up in Chapter 4, providing several neurobiological and psycho-physiological details that they believe could shed light on the “permission” metaphor common to the filter theories of both James and Myers. Though somewhat technical, it is still quite accessible. I should mention briefly here that Carpenter’s First Sight theory could add a lot to this – see more on First Sight below.

Chapters 5-7 are written by specialists in the physical sciences. Most notable is that you won’t find here any of the simplistic “quantum physics proves consciousness is the ultimate reality” claims that have made it difficult for many to see the radical implications of contemporary physics. In Chapter 5, Henry Stapp shows that even the most extreme “rogue” phenomena such as after-death experience and rebirth are compatible with current theories in physics. Harald Atmanspacher and Wolfgang Fach present the dual-aspect monist theory of Pauli and Jung in Chapter 6. They do an excellent job of showing how this view provides a much stronger basis for understanding unusual experiences than the prevailing physicalist view. In Chapter 7, physicist and astronomer Bernard Carr presents his hyperspatial theory, drawing on the work of philosopher C. D. Broad and neuroscientist Jon Smithies, among others. As a psychologist with a very limited background in the physical sciences, I can’t say too much about this, but his description of the possibility of multiple dimensions seemed like a very important link with the multi-dimensional view of Taimni, which is unfortunately slighted by Wicher and Kelly in Chapter 9.

In Chapter 8, Greg Shaw presents a lucid overview of the mystical metaphysics of Plotinus, who had an enormous influence on the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, particularly in regard to their mystical aspects. He shows how Plotinus provides a valuable link between Asiatic and European mysticism. He quite wisely suggests that the writings of Plotinus (who also, by the way, presented a multi-dimensional view of the cosmos not that different from the vision of the Upanishads) could be important in developing a basis for dealing with various “rogue” phenomena.

The selection of Ian Whicher to co-author a chapter on Patanjali was a particularly good one. Whicher, almost alone among scholars, suggests that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras may have a much more non-dualistic view than is commonly assumed. This aligns Patanjali with Abhinavagupta (the subject of the next chapter) and Aurobindo, whose integral vision has informed so much of Michael Murphy’s work. Chapter 9 focuses in particular on the third section of the Yoga Sutras, analyzing the various siddhis (powers) in relation to various findings in the parapsychological research. By the way, I found this chapter much more illuminating than Dean Radin’s “Supernormal,” which is also based largely on Part III of the Yoga Sutras.

In Chapter 10, Loriliai Biernacki connects the modern theory of Panentheism with the tantric views of medieval Indian yoga Abhinavagupta (this may be overly simplistic, but as I understand it, the “pan” of panentheism signifies that God and the universe are one, while the “en” denotes that God at the same time transcends the universe, which is seen as being “in” God, as in St. Paul’s declaration that God is “He in whom we live and move and have our being”). This is a very rich and well-written chapter, though it is quite dense and will require a lot of careful study for those not familiar with Indian philosophy. The tattvas or principles of the non-dual school of Kashmir Saivism (which was greatly inspired by Abhinavagupta) are packed with implications for understanding the relationship of consciousness to contemporary theories of modern physics as well as to the graded nature of consciousness, which must be understood for the development of an expanded science (if someone can work on connecting the tattvas with Carpenter’s First Sight theory, this will, I believe, have revolutionary implications for all the sciences – see also physiologist Don DeGracia’s description of the “fractal nature of consciousness” in his online book, “Beyond the Physical).

In Chapter 11, Paul Marshall lays out an essentially idealist theory focusing on the filter theory described in Chapter 4, showing how it’s compatible with modern science in general, and has much power to explain “rogue” phenomena.

In Chapter 12, Adam Crabtree presents what I think may be the most accessible outline of Charles Sanders Peirce’s thought available. It is a very well written chapter, as is all of Crabtree’s work I’ve come across. He suggests that the contemporary development of evolutionary panentheism owes a great deal to Peirce (as does the entire process philosophy and process theology movement).

In Chapter 13, Eric Weiss does for Whitehead what Crabtree did for Peirce – rather remarkably presenting a quite accessible (though of course, brief) overview of Whitehead’s work. He goes one step further, grounding Whitehead’s predominantly theoretical speculations in the yogic experience described by Sri Aurobindo. He quite credibly states that this integration of Whitehead and Sri Aurobindo’s views may be one of the most comprehensive means of understanding rogue phenomena and developing a truly expanded science.

PART III of “Beyond Physicalism” summarizes the overall progress of SURsem, and offers a preliminary assessment of where things stand now as well as possible future directions.

In Chapter 14, Ed Kelly draws on the 14 year history of SURsem to give us a rough draft of a new psychological model. Kelly here draws together the work from “Irreducible Mind” as well as the rich conversations of the ensuing 5 years since the publication of that book. He draws particularly on Frederic Myers’ evolutionary view, and says the group is now moving toward adopting some kind of synthesis of idealism and panentheism, adding that they are “taking into account various historical theisms as well.”

In Chapter 15, (full text available here) Murphy presents the world view of “Evolutionary Panentheism,” which has guided him – at least implicitly – for the past 50 years as the overseer of the Esalen Institute. He traces EP back to its roots in such German idealist philosophers as Fichte and Schelling, and looks back to the world’s mystical traditions, such as those of Vedanta, Buddhism, Tantra, Judaism, Kashmir Saivism, and Neo-Platonism. It’s a very readable and enjoyable chapter and a fitting conclusion to this marvelous work. Murphy concludes that Evolutionary Panentheism can be of major importance in leading to an expanded vision of science, as portrayed both in the two SURsem books and Murphy’s own “The Future of the Body.”

Kelly’s comments at the end of Chapter 14 are a good summary of the potential effects of the kinds of effort this book represents. He states his belief that this vision has “tremendous practical implications … in terms of providing us with an expanded worldview that is fundamentally life affirming and optimistic, profoundly spiritual and ecumenical in character, and defensible in light of our most fundamental traditions including that of leading edge modern science.”

***

My one major criticism of the book is that Jim Carpenter’s work is too hastily dismissed. Carpenter has developed what many consider to be the best theory of psi phenomena to date. His First Sight theory, as I understand it, suggests that rather than being unusual, paranormal activity is occurring all the time, but at a subliminal level. There is one mention of his work in Beyond Physicalism, which is quickly dismissed as adhering too much to the reigning physicalist paradigm. In my reading of First Sight, and in a brief correspondence with Carpenter, it’s been my sense that he is not at all wedded to a physicalist view.

There are a number of statements in the book that provide excellent links to the First Sight theory. On page 231, Bernard Carr states that the existence of “multiple spaces is necessary for the solution of many problems in parapsychology.” He cites mystic/sage Paul Brunton’s call for us to learn to “mentalize space and spatialize mind.” If we understand that the prior psi perception that Carpenter identifies is indeed in a different “space” from the material space we’re accustomed to, I believe that an integration of Carr’s observation with Carpenter’s theory could yield tremendous insight.

On page 344, Kelly and Whicher rather brusquely dismiss Taimni’s correlation of Patanjali’s stages of Samadhi, stages of the gunas and structural classifications of the koshas (bodies) in the Upanishads as “too simplistic.” Yes, perhaps; but if this correlation were tweaked somewhat, I believe it would have profound implications. Francisco Varela and Jeremy Hayward, integrating observations from neuroscience with the Tibetan Buddhist view of the skandhas, developed a multi-dimensional understanding of the evolution of consciousness that fits perfectly with First Sight theory, and gives cues as to how to connect the stages of the gunas (which Sri Aurobindo translated into modern terminology in his chapter on “The Triple Transformation” in “The Life Divine”) with the various koshas and lokas (planes of consciousness) in the Upanishads.

Even arch-materialist J. Alan Hobson, in his Scientific American book, “Consciousness,” noted that consciousness is “graded” over three times – over the course of billions of years of evolution, over our lifetime, and – mirroring quite closely the work of Varela and Hayward – in each moment. According to what I’ve learned from correspondence with Don Degracia, these various accounts of the unfolding of consciousness are quite close to what he describes as the ‘fractal nature of consciousness.”

On page 366, Loriliai Biernacki gives us another clue, remarking that “consciousness and matter function in a continuum,” which may be related in some way to the notion of continuum as expressed by mathematician Herman Weyl. First Sight theory can, I think, add a great deal of empirical substance as well as theoretical insight to the observations of Weyl, Biernacki, DeGracia, Hobson, Carr, Kelly, Whicher, Aurobindo, Varela, and Hayward.

From a less theoretical and more empirical (albeit “yogically” empirical) perspective, Sri Aurobindo presents a view of how consciousness unfolds in his commentary on the Kena Upanishad. Most of the 400+ page book on integral yoga psychology that my wife and I spent 5 years on is based on this observation: “As our human psychology is constituted, we begin with “samjnana”, the sense of an object in its image; the apprehension of it in knowledge follows. Afterwards we try to arrive at the comprehension of it in knowledge and the possession of it in power. There are secret operations in us, in our subconscient and superconscient selves, which precede this action, but of these we are not aware in our surface being and therefore for us they do not exist. If we knew of them, our whole conscious functioning would be changed.”

***

Another rather minor note of criticism – actually, more of a suggestion: Since the entire book is written in a very complex manner, it might be nice to consider offering something that is more widely accessible. To that end, I suggest taking a look at Bernardo Kastrup’s model of idealism (quite close, in some ways, to Abhinavagupta’s non-dualism, as well as evolutionary panentheism, though with a less overtly theistic quality). You can watch Bernardo present his ideas at Deepak Chopra’s “Scientists and Sages Conference,” here.

Here’s a very brief summary (in my words) of some of the points he makes:

The claim idealism is making is that all reality is in consciousness, therefore the body/brain are in consciousness too. If reality is in consciousness, then it is reasonable to infer that there is a segment of our psyches – the deepest, most obfuscated level, where our apparently distinct or “separate” psyches are unified – which generates the world of common experience. This avoids having to postulate the existence of an abstract world, a world fundamentally outside conscious experience for which there can never be – by definition – any proof. 
By postulating such an abstract non-conscious world, we create the hard problem of consciousness, which can never be resolved as long as we make such a postulate. By contrast, the assumption that all reality is in consciousness completely resolves the hard problem, by preventing it from arising in the first place.

***

I’d like to conclude by making two requests, one to the readers of this review and another to the authors.

If you are a graduate student looking for material for a thesis or dissertation, this book, along with “Irreducible Mind,” is filled with possible topics. My sense is that the SURsem group is eager for others to follow up on their work – Ed Kelly’s concluding chapter (14) has some suggestions for next steps in research and theory.

If you are an interested layperson – not directly involved in academia but still wishing to contribute to this extraordinary project – write to the authors, or visit the Esalen CTR site, and ask for ways to contribute.

To the authors, please make it easier for interested folks to contribute. My estimate is that there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are very eager to see the kind of changes you call for. Perhaps you could create some kind of forum at the CTR site, or some other way that more people can participate.

If you are put off by the price of the book, don’t be. This is too important a book to let that get in your way. Buy the book, contact the authors, visit the CTR site, get the conversation started. The world needs this kind of radical revisioning of science and spirituality. Hopefully, “Beyond Physicalism” will play a vital role in this revisioning process.

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