You Are a Paranormal Phenomenon
The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”
In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:
For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.
— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.
Three months ago, Jeffrey Kripal, whose focus on the reality of paranormal phenomena and its fusion with pop culture in his books Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics is given a dose of “official” mainstream credence by his position as chair of the religion department at Rice University, addressed the same attack on human consciousness in a conversation with Erik Davis:
Erik Davis: A lot of your scholarly work boils down to a basic argument: that many people throughout space and time, including scholars, have extraordinary experiences that possess powerful spiritual, religious, or cosmic implications. For some [Reality Sandwich] readers, this is kind of a no-brainer. Why is this reminder so radical in today’s academic world?
Jeffrey J. Kripal: Part of the reason is because the academic world no longer believes in experience. No, really, I’m not kidding. From the scientific materialism side, we are constantly asked to believe that we are not even truly conscious, that consciousness is an illusion, or a bit of neuronic froth. From the postmodern side, we are also asked to believe that the subject does not exist, that subjectivity is a Western ethnocentrism, that the author is dead, so to speak. I am exaggerating here. But not much.
— Erik Davis, “Edgewalker: An Interview with Jeffrey Kripal,” Reality Sandwich, May 14, 2012
This month in two separate essays for The New York Times‘ philosophy series The Stone, philosopher Richard Polt wrote about his observations of the same reductionist trend:
Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human … [M]ake no mistake, reductionism comes at a very steep price: it asks you to hammer your own life flat. If you believe that love, freedom, reason and human purpose have no distinctive nature of their own, you’ll have to regard many of your own pursuits as phantasms and view yourself as a “deluded animal.” Everything you feel that you’re choosing because you affirm it as good – your career, your marriage, reading The New York Times today, or even espousing reductionism – you’ll have to regard intellectually as just an effect of moving and material causes. You’ll have to abandon trust in your own experience for the sake of trust in the metaphysical principle of reductionism.
“We are all of the same nature and genus as the daimons — the angels, aliens, archetypes — that haunt our dreams and spill over into our waking world in twilight eruptions of liminality. This isn’t just an intellectual recognition but a spiritual/ontological awakening.”
Two days ago novelist and blogger Michael Prescott, who writes often and cogently about parapsychological and paranormal matters, considered the reality or unreality of the spirits that supposedly communicate through mediums. This is a matter made more pressing by the recent rise of the “Hearing Voices” movement, which teaches people to deal with distressing voices like those heard in schizophrenia by learning to listen and even speak to them, thus lessening their hostility and hold. In addition to the two obvious possibilities — that the spirits are objectively real or purely imaginary — Prescott insightfully notes another option:
I suppose a third, more esoteric possibility is that both things are true — that the voices are purely functional constructs, as mainstream psychiatry would say, but also “spirits,” as Spiritualists would have it. This could be true if we view personality as such as a functional construct, somewhat in the way that Eckhart Tolle does. In other words, if the ego-persona is itself a functional construct, then to all intents and purposes there is no difference between an artificially constructed voice in one’s head and the artificially constructed façade of the self as we experience it in everyday life. What is real, then, would be only the higher self, the witness that watches all these ego-based dramas play out.
— Michael Prescott, “Who’s There?” August 19, 2012
Returning to the aforementioned upshot of this column, and speaking specifically in response to Prescott’s point, I would simply like to say: exactly! This is wonderfully put and expressive of a crucial truth, or rather the crucial truth, that underlies, basically, everything. It’s a truth that I gestured toward in a previous column when I said the secret to life can be found in the recognition that our customary view of the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity has it backward, because, contrary to contemporary common sense in the age of reductionist materialism, the objective world is a reduction and abstraction from the subjective world, not vice versa. Exploring the ontology of paranormal and daimonic matters by exploring their cross-illumination with the mystical, nondual, and depth spirituality that Eckhart Tolle (among others) so ably represents, and that all religious and spiritual traditions in their perennial aspect represent, may well be the (or a) wave of the future.
Or so I hope, because I think there’s no better way of cutting through the sometimes subliminal fog of preemptive objectivity that so often distances us from paranormal phenomena by leading us to approach them in purely intellectual terms — an approach and outlook that’s inculcated in virtually all of us in Western society by the all-pervading philosophical straitjacket of the reigning collective worldview that explains away consciousness and the self. The opposite approach, in which we stay consciously centered in our subjectivity and let the exploration of the nature, meaning, and reality of paranormal phenomena merge with a phenomenological exploration of the nature, meaning, and reality of our own selves, is so much more real and to the point.
And in the end it reveals that we are all paranormal phenomena. We are all of the same nature and genus as the daimons — the angels, aliens, archetypes — that haunt our dreams and spill over into our waking world in twilight eruptions of liminality. This isn’t just an intellectual recognition but a spiritual/ontological awakening. When it happens, you wake up to a world of real phantoms all around you, and you realize that you’re the ghostliest of them all, not in the sense of being unreal, but in the sense of being more real than, and transcendent of, the external reality you perceive.