Last week I was at a private working conference at Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research, a long-lived conference which is been going on for some 14 years now. We started out focusing on the problem of postmortem survival: was there good evidence for it? How could you think deeply about that, though, when there seems to be so much scientific evidence that consciousness is nothing but a product of the brain? When the brain dies, how could you expect any kind of consciousness to continue existing?
One of the major concrete outcomes of this conference to date was an edited, scientific book, Irreducible Mind, which documented many, many gaps in the materialistic theories that mind was nothing but a product of the brain. This included many examples of parapsychological phenomena, such as I focused on in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book, as well as many examples from other areas of psychology and neurology. It’s not really enough, though, to say there are many flaws with the materialistic reduction of mind, and that there is good, if not absolutely convincing, evidence that some aspect of consciousness survives bodily death. If you want people to get interested enough to work in this area, or to support research in this area, it’s very helpful to give them some idea of what more comprehensive theories would look like, theories that would be compatible with what we currently know scientifically but also deal adequately with the evidence for postmortem survival and other kinds of psychic functioning.
Just What is a Person? Or a Mind?
You should ask, though, survival of what? What is this “mind” or “person” that might survive?
Thus our conference focus has broadened to questions about what is the basic nature of human life, what is the basic nature of consciousness? What are its (neglected) possibilities? It’s hard to be sure about whether something survives or not when you can’t really describe or define what that “something” is. So our discussions, led by experts in relevant fields, have ranged from quantum physics to higher dimensional models of reality, to systems of Tantric yoga, to paranormal phenomena in sports as well as in the laboratory, to Theosophy, to various forms of mysticism, etc., as we try to get a more comprehensive picture of what it means to be human. What parts of those other views might be amenable to scientific and scholarly treatment, can hlep us understand human functioning and survival, and which parts must simply remain matters of faith or belief?
One of the particular phenomena we focused on at the last meeting was the alleged paranormal levitations of St. Joseph of Cupertino. We drew on a comprehensive study of this by philosopher/parapsychologist Michael Grosso. (He has a book coming out on this soon.)
Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663) was an Italian Franciscan friar who is honored by the Catholic Church today as a mystic and a saint. He was said to have been dumb enough from childhood on that many thought he was retarded, but he was prone to miraculous levitations and intense ecstatic visions that left him stupefied and agog. He was something of an embarrassment to the Church during his life, prone to disrupting sacred ceremonies by suddenly giving a little cry and floating up into the air, but he was eventually canonized in 1767 as the patron saint of air travelers, aviators, astronauts, mentally handicapped people, poor students and those who had difficulties taking tests. One colleague at Esalen described him as the patron saint of helicopters, which struck me as very apt, but I don’t think this is an official church description.
Here’s a painting of St. Joseph levitating that I found on the net. Too bad cameras hadn’t been invented yet!
Two paragraphs above I talked about the “alleged” levitations of St. Joseph. The qualifier “alleged” came out automatically as I was writing, for those of us who’ve been involved in parapsychological research have learned to be very cautious about jumping to conclusions. Sometimes you jump and the thing you think you’re going to safely land on disappears before you come down….There are some parapsychological phenomena – I called them the Big Five in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book – for which I think there’s conclusive evidence, but there are others that we’re not so sure about, the Many Maybes, and there certainly have been phenomena that looked to be genuinely parapsychological at first, but on closer investigation turned out to have normal explanations. So “alleged” is a way of saying “Looks good at first glance, but we need more data.” Yet I felt funny using the word “alleged,” as the evidence for the reality of Joseph’s limitations is incredibly impressive. Dozens and dozens of times large numbers of people, including doubters who came to debunk him, simultaneously saw him levitate, inspected the situation to be sure there was no trickery, etc. And, when someone marching along an open village street in the middle of a religious procession suddenly levitates 10 feet in the air and floats there for several minutes, what kind of trickery could you possibly do to produce that under medieval conditions?
One of the reasons we were discussing St. Joseph was to see how much, as a group, we accepted the reality of powerful psychokinesis (PK) effects, like levitation. There certainly are some parapsychologists who will accept PK as a tiny statistical effect, where a random number generator that should show a 50-50 split between two targets, for example,, shows a 52 percent split frequently enough to be statistically significant. That’s micro-PK, and obviously a very tiny effect compared to an adult person levitating into the air.
What I’m focusing on in this note now is the fact that some of my colleagues at the meeting mentioned that Professor Grosso had submitted a similar paper to the forthcoming Parapsychological Association (PA) meetings, and the PA’s program committee had rejected it. I have no details on this, but find it unbelievable. Here are incredibly well documented examples of some of the most powerful psychokinesis that has ever occurred, and we’re finding reasons not to talk about it at the PA meetings?
When I was young and first getting into psychology and parapsychology, I had the rather idealistic (and naïve) belief that psychologists and parapsychologists applied the knowledge we have about the workings of the human mind to themselves, and consequently became more mature, more realistic, more objective, less neurotic people. I am inclined to be optimistic, so it took many examples of psychologists and parapsychologists showing the irrational biases that we all have to slowly convince me that while we were on an idealistic scientific pursuit in some ways, we were just as prone to human error as ordinary people. I still have faith that the basic scientific method is a very useful way of refining and improving the quality of our knowledge, but, given human fallibility, it may take a lot longer than if we were all simply logical and objective.
A couple of decades ago, I had a very revealing dream along this line. As background, note that I’ve been a member and officer, including President for one year, of the PA for decades, and been honored by my colleagues in the organization, so I generally have quite positive feelings toward it.
I dreamed that I was attending a PA convention, and was out in the hallway in the break between a couple of paper sessions, talking to various colleagues. Many other colleagues were milling around in the hallway, talking with each other. Suddenly I thought about levitation, and to my amazement, I found myself sitting cross-legged up in the air, floating about seven or eight feet off the floor!
Well I was quite excited in the dream to have done this at all, much less to do it at a PA convention. Here I was surrounded by the people who would be extremely interested in this phenomenon and be able to make high-quality observations of exactly what was going on. So I called out to people to get them to look at me. Look, I was levitating!
Nobody bothered to look.
My dream ended.
Too bad we can’t get a camera into a dream. So just for fun (to counteract the discouragement of what the dream was saying and what happened to Michael Grosso), I’ve made up a picture. A crowd scene at some convention pulled from the web, and a Photoshopped version of a picture of me “levitating” in the ordinary world.
“Levitating?” I was visiting some friends, we were talking about Transcendental meditators “levitating” from the lotus posture, but what they did being more conventionally explained as hopping. My friends didn’t believe anyone could hop into the air from a full lotus posture, so I demonstrated it on their living room rug. A quick demonstration, as the full lotus is very painful for me, and while I could hop from it, it’s a most inefficient way to get around! And, of course, I come right back down… Anyway, enjoy the picture, and perhaps the silly expression on my face – or maybe it’s a pained expression, it’s awfully hard to hop from the full lotus….
Years ago, as part of my life-long study of my own mind, I personally realized that in some ways I was afraid of psychic abilities, of psi. Psychic abilities were historically associated with evil and the supernatural, as well as with good and healing. While I, stereotypical male, didn’t like to admit I was afraid of anything, I understood my personal psychology and others’ psychology well enough to know that denying a feeling may remove it from consciousness, but it still operates in the background and may have even more powerful effects in distorting perception, thinking, feeling and action than if it were conscious. One of the things I do to continue my personal psychological growth is to try to pay clearer attention to feelings like fears when they arise, instead of automatically sweeping them into the background.
I’ve written about fear of psi, especially our resistance to more powerful displays of psi, many times over the years (my web site with my papers is temporarily down so I can’t direct you there), and, by and large, my colleagues have paid little or no attention to what I’ve said. As a human I can understand this. I don’t like to be reminded of things I’m afraid of, so let’s change the subject! On the other hand, as a scientist, I’m committed to search for truth, whether I like the truths I find or not. This requires me to constantly be trying to find better methods by which to search for better understandings, even if that involves recognizing aspects of my personality that I’d rather not. Am I always successful in finding attitude, feelings, beliefs, etc. that might bias me? I doubt it, but I’m probably more successful at it than if I pretended I didn’t have biases and so didn’t look for them.
I think I’ll end here on this note, since I don’t have the kind of answers I’d like to have and share, and we’ll see where this goes. Reality is in process…..and, I hope, progress…….