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Consciousness and Parapsychology: A Thought Experiment
Consciousness is a recent phenomenon in the history of planet Earth; we know nothing of it beyond or prior to terrestrial history. What we do know is part of the story – the unfinished story – of human evolution. The true function of consciousness is quite puzzling, and its relationship to the central nervous system is riddled with hard questions. Some regard consciousness as eluding rational explanation, as does the mysterian philosopher, Colin McGinn, while some like the late psychologist William James contend that consciousness does not exist, at least not in any substantive sense.
As to its causal powers, there is a spectrum of opinions, ranging from epiphenomenalism (consciousness as impotent brain offshoot) to hypophenomenalism (brain as somehow derivative from consciousness). Some say it is an emergent property, the result of a critical measure of brain complexity; others think it something implicit in being or nature, waiting to be teased into manifestation. Some call it a glorious excresence of chance, others see in its purity – God throwing off sparks of soul life. Dostoysevsky thought consciousness was a disease, a freakish pain, an impediment to life.
Obviously, there is no consensus here. This may be a clue to something important, a kind of wink daring us to push boldly onward. I will therefore take up the gauntlet and attempt an evocation of the extraordinary potential of human consciousness. Now the question we are asking is this: What might the world look like – what would it be like? -- if we used human consciousness at full throttle?
Views have varied. The18PthPcentury philosophes seemed confident that rational consciousness would dominate human development, leading in time to an “age of light.” By the 19th century, Darwinian evolution prompted some to believe that human consciousness was still nascent, so we find different models of its possible manner of ascent. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said that man is a “rope tied between beast and overman” and believed that the key to the ascent for the few was by means of creative voluntarism. Richard Bucke wrote about the future of cosmic or mystical consciousness, drawing his models selectively from experience and using his friend Walt Whitman as an example. Teihard de Chardin conceived of the advance in accord with a Christian model of evolution, a struggle to enter into the noosphere – a kind of collective human awareness. In short, there are all sorts of attempts to imagine the future of consciousness.
Here I will sketch a model based on psychological data usually avoided if not repressed by mainstream science. My thought-experiment will draw on parapsychology, or psychical research – the study of certain unexplained or “paranormal” phenomena that clearly have dramatic implications for the primacy of consciousness. Since this is an exercise of the hypothetical imagination, we will not review the evidence for the phenomena (though a good source for this isIrreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, Rowman & Littlefield/2006). Our job is to imagine their implications for human life and ask how they may contain the seeds of human transformation.
Living in a Telepathic World
Parapsychology is an embattled enterprise, generally unwelcomed by mainstream science or religion. True, great names in science and philosophy may be invoked who were sympathetic to the cause – Wallace (co-founder with Darwin of the theory of natural selection), Myers, Freud, Jung, William James, and many others – but the majority of mainstream scientists keep their distance. With few exceptions, theologians are aloof, whereas religious fundamentalists tend to be hostile and somewhat paranoid about the claims of parapsychology. The latter often identify psychic phenomena as probably of diabolic origin.
Why do some people resist the paranormal with religious zeal? Perhaps they sense that if psychic potential were a fact of nature, it would challenge many of our basic assumptions and institutions. Imagine, for example, that we could all effectively read each other’s minds. Many might bridle at the prospect of such an unmasking and loss of privacy. Hostility to the idea of possessing such powers implies recognition of their disturbing implications.
What then are the implications for human function of paranormal phenomena? We just mentioned telepathy, a word invented by F.W.H. Myers, literally meaning “feeling at a distance” or, more precisely, “the communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense.” Telepathy, if it exists, names a huge extension of human consciousness (and indeed subconsciousness); in human relations it enables us to transcend the limits of sense life, suggesting that the boundaries separating our personalities may be more porous than we think.
Telepathy seems to occur infrequently and not to everyone, although some think it is taking place all the time only below the threshold of awareness. Suppose that some psychoactive agent, inner discipline, or genetic mutation raised the level of telepathic performance to a general human capacity. Of course, some might recoil from too much openness and transparency. On the positive side, the greater the mutual openness and transparency, the more likely that intimacy, empathy, and sympathy would emerge; it would be hard, for example, to witness the sufferings of others with indifference and detachment. Telepathy might also help us penetrate the interior worlds of nonhumans, thus intuitively supporting the notion of animal liberation. It would be more natural to acknowledge that nonhumans suffer as well as experience pleasure, and we would more readily share their pathos and enjoyments.
The ancient philosophers insisted on frankness and outspokenness as virtues in social life. In a telepathically open world, frankness and outspokenness would naturally be more common. This widening of sympathies would lead to a Whitmanesque enlargement of the individual “I” or ego sense. I would more readily feel and share the inner reality of other sentient beings; the golden rule would be less a moral command than an effortless extension of the sense of my identity. My individual pains and joys would in a sense belong to everyone, and as John Donne said, everyone’s death would “diminish me” as everyone’s life would augment me.
Frederic Myers saw a link between love and telepathy. “Love,” he wrote, “is a kind of exalted and unspecialized telepathy.” It would be hard to ignore the misery of the other just as I find it hard to ignore the misery inflicted on me, my friends, or my loved ones. Compassionate social activism would cease being a rarity but become part of our normal response to the world. Generosity of spirit would be commonplace, not exceptional, and love a byproduct of the ordinary pathos of perception. Greed and other vicious psychic dispositions would shrivel in direct proportion to the new scope of pathos consciousness. Thus, in the flitting epiphanies of what today we call telepathy, we may be seeing signs of a new order of love.
Clairvoyance and Genius
Let us now ask what would happen if our clairvoyant capacity were dramatically enlarged. Genius, Myers thought, represented the true normality of future humanity: a state in which the waking self is in continuous vital relationship with the subliminal self. That deepened interaction is what he meant by genius. Clairvoyance implies a supernormal consciousness of distant scenes, objects, and, in Myers’ usage, planes, modes, as well as symbols of existence. As Myers linked love with telepathy, he linked genius with clairvoyance. Among other things, genius for Myers implied clairvoyant access to the subliminal mind, which in its totality contains the repository of world history, world-soul, and whatever timeless wisdom and inspiration is available to the mind of man.
Myers’ theory of genius has profoundly democratic leanings. Ordinary people harbor extraordinary creative ability. All that is lacking is the requisite stimulus: a dream, an illness or close brush with death, or even some deficit or trauma in organic function as in cases of savant-syndrome. The oddest things are apt to jolt people into wider awareness. No rule predicts what may serve as the requisite stimulus. We all live on the threshold and near the springs of great creative powers. Lautreamont, one of the saints of surrealism, said, “Poetry should be made by all,” and Rimbaud, in a famous letter, described how he taught himself to become clairvoyant by exploring his autre (other) self, i.e., his subliminal mind. There are, in fact, many cases on record of psychotic patients, mediums, or ordinary uneducated persons suddenly becoming possessed by creative inspiration. Cesar Lombroso was one of the first to collect the art of mental patients, and Jean Dubuffet and Andre Breton were artists who testified to the value of the automatisms of the untutored psyche, confirming Myers’ intuition of the implicit normality of genius. With telepathy and clairvoyance enhanced, the quality of human relationships and the range of creativity would be powerfully enhanced.
An Enlarged Sense of Time
Paranormal investigation further suggests that our consciousness of time is latently more flexible and certainly more puzzling than commonly supposed. Time is one of the shapers of conscious existence, critical to novelty and creative advance but also an entropic shadow on our lives, a philosophical curse, a force as relentless in destruction as it is in creation. But time has some cracks in its mighty façade. Psychical researchers flummox us with reports of precognition and retrocognition; people occasionally seem to catch unmediated glimpses of past and future. Glimpses of the future especially raise questions about our conventional ideas of time. The obvious objection is that true precognition would reverse the customary causal sequence, creating the awkward idea of backward causation. But more to the point: What concrete life-difference would it make if we could expand our consciousness of time?
The 1986 Francis Coppola movie, Peggy Sue Got Married, takes up a theme from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Scrooge and Peggy Sue travel around in time and get a chance to re-view some of the highlights of their lives; they see, feel, and understand things they missed, or couldn’t have seen, the first trip around. Scrooge, hitching a ride on the spirit of Christmas future, also gets to see his own probable future, and what he sees horrifies him. Thanks to their enlarged consciousness of time, Scrooge and Peggy Sue are inwardly changed and return to the present with a more refined set of values and having gained something of the wisdom of the heart.
It’s an interesting question: What would it be like if we could experience the full presence of the present; in short, see ourselves more clearly, the impact of our words and deeds on the world around us, all the effects radiating outwardly? This idea of a more comprehensive vision, of experiencing the fullness and diversity of life, the fusion of past, present, and future, is how I construe the idea of eternity, which differs from the everlasting. Time, Plato said, is the moving picture of eternity. What we mostly know in normal consciousness is the restless, scurrying picture of things under the shadow of the clock racing; if we could widen our consciousness sufficiently, we might learn something about “eternity,” – the “world” in Blake’s “grain of sand.” The eyelids of eternal vision flicker; we are enfolded in something greater than piecemeal time. Hints of this may come to us in forgetful moments, in the peace of love, art or nature, or in study, work, and struggle. They turn up in accounts of mystics, saints, and yogis: among those who have fasted, practiced breath control, and meditated.
We find flickers of enlarged time sense in the anomalies of memory: reports of children who remember past lives and of people who nearly die and see “panoramic” visions of their whole lives before them. Surely we would dramatically change if we learned to see in one glance the pattern of our life, its shape and direction and dominant motifs.
Mind over Matter
So far we’ve looked at some possibilities of perceptual transformation. There is also the question of bodily transformation. ESP is receptive, but PK or psychokinesis is expressive, intentional, directed. Here consciousness performs what must seem like a miracle to our mainstream materialists: it seems to leap beyond its physical integument and exert influence on states of matter. That of course will seem retrograde to people of a certain cast of mind for whom it will imply an authentication of magic! For what is magic but an exaltation of the will? An example are the famous dice-throwing experiments of J.B. Rhine, in which subjects “will” a particular die face to come out. Consciousness here expresses itself by directly transforming states of physical reality. If one is not astonished by the thought of this, one is not thinking of the implications.
However, conscious volition is only one way that consciousness may express itself psychokinetically. There may be involuntary forms of psychic influence on living bodies or physical objects, for example, as in the metaphysically charged antics of poltergeists. Here, a living agent, often a youngster undergoing emotional turmoil, involuntarily causes objects to move, break, or otherwise behave anomalously. Sometimes the poltergeist agent learns to control the initially involuntary effects. The implications of this could be seen as frightening. These and other documentable cases suggest we may one day learn consciously to direct the matter-molding powers of the subliminal psyche. If and when that time comes, a new stage of the human adventure will have been launched.
Extreme forms of psychokinesis tell us something else about the powers of the human mind. In a few cases, evidence for levitation is very strong, for example, the experiences of St. Joseph of Copertino and St. Teresa of Avila. What seems theoretically most intriguing is that the levitation seems a byproduct of the saint’s ecstatic state of mind. The records show that prayer or an ecstatic visionary experience were the triggers; a peculiar psychophysical state generates the “miracle.” Another example are the stigmata produced by saints known to have been focusing their attention on paintings or statues of the crucified Christ. Finally, there are cases of inedia, where a saintly individual lives without eating or drinking for months or even years, sustained apparently and solely by the Eucharistic host. We can call this “psychokinesis by symbolic action.”
These examples (there are other well-documented cases) illustrate the potential of consciousness to directly influence physical reality: ecstasy suspending gravity; fixation on an image causing wounds with strange properties; belief in the value of a symbol altering the physiology of nutrition, and so on. All these suggest the power of mind for enhancing or of course damaging health and life itself.
The Illusion of Death
One final conception of our thought-experiment compels us to contemplate the following: the psychokinetic powers of saints, yogis, physical mediums, and aboriginal “people of high degree” suggest the possibility of some kind of afterlife body and afterlife environment. Ecstasy or anxiety, love or enmity, may shape the kinds of mental body and environment – in traditional terms, hellish or heavenly – we are said to experience in the postmortem world.
The early psychical researchers sought to determine if there were empirical grounds for the belief in a life after death. So far, well over a hundred years of research have harvested much interesting (and various sorts of) data suggesting that we may (at least some of us for some time) survive bodily death. Now suppose survival was a fact of nature. What difference would it make? That of course will vary from individual to individual, but a few remarks might stimulate some thinking.
From Plato to the Founding Fathers of America, the fear of hell and the promise of heavenly reward served a useful purpose. Fear of hell served as a lid on our criminal propensities while the promise of heaven alleviated the dangerous resentment of the discontented masses. One might with reason say that the unprecedented criminality of the 20thcentury was due to having lifted that lid of myth-fostered repression, unleashing the destructive pandæmonium of the subconscious; free of the old fear of hell and the old hope for heaven, men proceeded to create hell on earth. Nowadays there is little evidence that fear of hell is a major factor driving people’s conscience (except perhaps among disposed fundamentalists). From surveys I have read, Americans, at any rate, are sanguine about going to heaven; practically everyone seems to think they’re going to heaven, unlike the old Puritans who were more afraid of going to hell.
We need to imagine a better use of a 21st-century science-based afterlife mythology. In my view, if we survive death, it would mean entering fully into the surreal world of lucid dreaming, for which some measure of self-knowledge might be useful in what Plato called “the journey of a thousand years.” For example, if we saw our passage to the next world as one of ever-deepening self-revelation, a kind of sudden and imposed openness and transparency, as a scene where the unconscious becomes conscious and the inner becomes the outer, I would think we might feel motivated to better know ourselves in preparation for what is to come. All experience here on earth would be charged with new significance, for we would know we are creating the future – planting seeds for unpredictable growths in possibly unknown environments. The idea of another round of existence on another plane of existence would force us to revise our attitude toward life – if, that is, we viscerally believed it. Whatever we did and whatever we thought would gain an intensity of meaning would become part of the myth of each of our personal world-lines as they drive and cut their tangled way through the jungle of space and time.
Consciousness is often said to be intentional; it is always about something. It always points to a world of one or another type or dimension. Consciousness, in short, is always a transparency, an opening. Now, its power to extend to a “next” world is also the power that can open us to this world. Here, in my opinion, is the greatest gift of consciousness; its freedom to choose, select, emphasize, reject, affirm, praise, and love. It is this power to highlight what is essential, what is vitally important to any world, that is the greatest thing about consciousness. It is our mental culture, the inner equipment deployed to interpret and transform experience.
The prospect of death concentrates the mind, Samuel Johnson once said; the prospect of an afterlife would concentrate our minds no less. For if this strange story, this uncanny adventure, goes on even after the body is reduced to lifeless atoms, then we have to be incredibly alert and totally alive to the dangers and wondrous possibilities that await us along the way. Add the provocative evidence of psychical research, and we are entitled to imagine continuous adventure as definitive of the human condition.
At Liberation’s Door
To sum up, in taking inventory of the paranormal potentials of human consciousness, we find grounds for undreamed of possibilities for enhancing life. Our telepathic potencies herald a new order of love based on the natural empathy between sentient beings. The unfolding of clairvoyant capacity points to a new democracy of genius, to deeper access to the many layers of self, and rapport with the natural world. Our enlarged consciousness of time will enrich the quality-of-life experience, adding depth, perspective, and complexity. The unfolding of our psychokinetic potential foreshadows radical changes in the manner of our embodiment on Earth. Emancipation from physical constraints will free us for the supreme pursuits of our lives as each of us sees them. Finally, we will learn to experience the timeless core of our consciousness. The old terror of death will be lifted – an albatross from our backs – and we will become citizens of the evolving universe, free to enjoy the gift and adventure of life.
This essay is excerpted from the anthology Mind before Matter (O Books, 2007), edited by Trish Pfeiffer, John Mack, and Paul Devereux (available online and via www.pauldevereux.co.uk). Dr. Grosso's website is www.michaelgrosso.net.