Comparative Religions scholar and author of, Authors of the Impossible explores the link between consciousness and culture.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for and interview with Rice University Religious Studies professor and author of, Authors of the Impossible, Dr. Jeff Kripal. During the interview Dr. Kripal discusses how a broad view of comparative religions might inform scientific debate on the nature of consciousness, “I have developed this model of consciousness and culture… I’m sure some people will read that it’s always just culture. Other people will read it as saying I believe in some kind of absolute consciousness beyond our culture… but actually it’s both. I’m trying to maintain this both/and thinking and not keep falling into this either/or.”
Dr. Kripal also discusses how this model might change our view of near-death experience science, “I’m not suggesting that near-death experiences are simply culture or nothing but local context. Not at all. I think consciousness is self-existent and does survive bodily death, but I also think it always, always, always expresses itself… through language and culture and context. So you’re never outside of that. But you may be outside of it when you die. I mean, I don’t know. If I’ve died before I don’t remember it.”
Dr. Kripal also share his thoughts on how a new model of consciousness might impact religion, “I’m thinking more of creating a new religious worldview. Not me, personally, mind you, but as a culture. That’s where the historian can speak here, too. When religious systems start out, nobody knows where they’re going. They never, ever, ever come out of nowhere. They’re always syntheses or fusions of the scientific knowledge of the time and the different cultures that are interacting. So where I place my hope isn’t on Church A or Synagogue B or Scientist X. It’s the future generations who can put this stuff together in a completely new way, which I think is almost inevitable.”
Alex Tsakiris: Today we’re joined by the author of Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, a book that he’s also developing into a documentary film, as well as a podcast titled, Impossible Talk. As an aside, I have to mention what a fine podcast it is. The interviews are just fantastic and Jeff brings this dialogue-between-colleagues style that’s really enjoyable and quite insightful. He’s also the head of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University and is the author of several other interesting books I hope we have a chance to talk about. Dr. Jeff Kripal, thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Thanks for having me, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: You bet. You know, Jeff, it’s interesting digging into your background. I mean, Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. That doesn’t sound all that exciting on the surface, but what a story. I mean, you grow up Roman Catholic; you go to the seminary for four years because you think you want to be a priest.
You leave, get this Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Comparative Religions and then wind up writing a book, Kali’s Child, about the homoerotic interpretations of this Hindu saint and you find yourself in this intellectual firestorm and your book is being debated on the floor of the Indian Parliament. And now here you are 15 years later, you’re tacking psi and the paranormal. I mean, what a ride for an academic.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, it’s been a ride. It’s all related in my mind. It’s all really the same set of questions, but from the outside it might look pretty wild.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about that path and what are those questions?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, it’s a long story. I’ve told it in many places. I can give you the short version. The short version is I started out in a Benedictine monastic seminary, really wanting to be a monk. Not a priest. Priests worked too hard. That looked like way too much work to me. [Laughs] I was more interested in the sort of contemplative, scholarly life of a monastic community and was trained by just some fantastic monks in Missouri, and really got turned on to philosophy and historical criticism and the study of religion and psychoanalysis, which in some sense I had to get interested in because I was deeply, deeply anorexic and basically dying on some level.
So the monks put me into psychoanalysis with one of their own monks. It was a very powerful experience and essentially cured me of the anorexia, but in the process, taught me that religious behaviors and religious institutions, and particularly profound religious experiences, are all deeply connected to sexuality and to erotic energies. So that was really my initiation by fire, on both levels there, I guess. And it was a kind of survival for me. I was fighting for my life.
So that really got me interested in this connection between spirit and sex, if you want to define the binary that way. And that’s what took me to India to study Tantric traditions in Bengal. Then in my second and third books, looking at erotic mystical literature both in the West and in Asia. And I think that’s really the deeper root here.
I’ve always argued fairly passionately-some people would say too passionately-that spirit and sex are two sides of the same thing. With my present work on the paranormal, I’m essentially making the exact same argument with respect to mind and matter. I’m basically trying to take apart these binaries or the dualities that we’re always imagining the world to be. In fact it’s not.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Yeah, and if I can pull that apart a little bit and maybe pull the sexual part out of it for just a minute, because the other thing you draw on that would be interesting to our audience is the different ways of looking at things from the standpoint of what the humanities bring, and what this narrative brings, versus what the empirical science brings.
And I think you also make that connection, too, between we can only approach the spiritual from this other poetry-plus rather than science-minus kind of approach. Then what’s interesting I think to our listeners especially is then you draw that same parallel with the psi and with the paranormal and say, “Hey, maybe the reason why we’re not getting closer to it with science is because it needs that same poetry-plus angle to it.”
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right. I mean, basically the argument I make in the Authors book is that if you look at how we’ve divided up our knowledge systems in the modern world, really since Descartes we’ve split the world in half. And we’ve split it into matter and mind. And matter is the object, literally the object of the scientific method and science has taken that method very, very far and given it incredible, incredible things, one thing after the other.
But it’s failed really completely to explain consciousness, and the reason it’s failed is because consciousness is not an object. It’s the subject doing the science. And so science is not adequately equipped to study consciousness because it’s assuming that everything is an object; everything is made of matter; everything can be replicated and quantified in a controlled laboratory. It simply can’t be. And so the humanities then, this sort of broad range of fields that I inhabit, we-our whole subject is in fact the subject. It’s the nature of consciousness as it gets encoded in culture and language and literature and religion and philosophy.
We’ve developed all these methods for hundreds of years to study consciousness and so really, what I’m saying on the most basic level in the book, Authors of the Impossible, is that folks, maybe the humanities have something to offer this conversation. It doesn’t mean we stop doing laboratory parapsychology, but it means if we really want to understand experiences that seem to violate completely this division between subject and object, maybe we’d better listen to some disciplines and some people who know all about how to talk about the subject and consciousness. It’s a humble argument on one level.
Alex Tsakiris: Uh-huh (Yes). Well, I think some humility, [Laughs] is needed on both the spiritual side and when they talk about what they know and on the scientific side when they talk about what they know. So I think there’s plenty of room for humility.
To bring it down to a concrete example that you gave, I think I was listening to one of your podcasts and you said something that really struck me because it’s a nice, concrete example. You said, “Let’s say someone asks the question, ‘Hey, why is God usually portrayed as a male figure in many religious traditions?’ Well, you can’t get there scientifically.” And that’s a classic case where you need a lit review and you need some other means. Do you want to expound on that a little bit?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Let me give you a really simple example that I think works better than the male God question. The way I define the humanities and the sciences is very simply, but I think it helps. The sciences are a set of methods that assume that the world is made of numbers and matter. The humanities are a set of disciplines that assumes that the world is also made of words and stories.
And I think if you just define those two fields of knowing that way then you can understand. When you take somebody’s paranormal experience, take something very simple like a synchronisticy. Like take Jung’s famous story of working with a female patient about the scarab beetle. This dream, this woman has this dream of this scarab beetle and as she’s telling him this dream, this insect is knocking on the window. Jung opens the window and a beetle flies in. He catches it in his hand and he says, “Here’s your dream.” And that was the key point that dissolved her kind of hard rationalism and her world view.
Now what a Humanist does is look at that and says, “Well, that event was not structured by causality and necessarily material processes.” It’s working exactly as if it were a story and it needs symbols or signs to work at all. In other words, you need to know something about this scarab beetle. You need to know something about a dream in ancient Egypt and then you need to interpret this beetle coming in the window as fitting into that dream story.
So there are all of these processes going on within a synchronisticy that are textural. They’re basically narrative processes that have nothing to do with causality. They have everything to do with story and plot and symbol and sign. I think a lot of people’s paranormal experiences are powerful, precisely to the extent they’re about story and meaning and have really very little to do with material, causal processes. And so that’s the contribution, I think, there.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. And I’ve heard you make that point before. I have to say, every time I hear it I get close to it but you haven’t really won me all the way over. The scientific side of me wants to kind of pull it down and say, “Okay, but let’s get it down to specifics.”
Let’s look at something I’m interested in, continuation of consciousness. I know you’re interested in it, too, and I’ve heard you speak about it. So what prevents us from getting closer to that through science? What are we missing if we approach this topic head-on with the current kind of research methods that we’re using, for example, in the near-death experience? Why can’t we get there with regular science?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, nothing should stop us from doing that. I’m all for science. I’m all for laboratory parapsychology and near-death research. I think they’re fantastic.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m not saying you’re not. I’m just saying you seem to be suggesting that there’s something that we can’t quite get there.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Because at the end of the day, consciousness is not an object. You will never, ever, ever be able to measure it or to see it on a screen because it’s an interior mind reality. It’s not an object in space and time. I suppose that’s my basic assumption.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But we have all sorts of means of measuring the effects of…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah. We can measure the effects of mind; we can measure correlations in brain states, but nobody can get consciousness on the screen. You know, all of these pretty pictures we’re always seeing in neuroscience textbooks or TV programs, they give the illusion that we’re actually seeing something direct but we’re not. We’re seeing something indirect there. We’re seeing brain states. We’re not seeing the actual mental state.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. See, that seems to me to be more something that we can unravel. I mean, there’s a question that I think we can get closer to scientifically, and that’s…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: I agree.
Alex Tsakiris: …do brain states correlate to mind states? And I think that answer has really already been given.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Absolutely. Alex, I’m just a little Humanist in a room of scientists waving my hand in the corner saying, “Hey, hey, guys and gals, maybe I could just speak once in a while.” Maybe we have something to offer the conversation. And maybe if you actually look at how near-death experiences are reported and when they take place, we can come up with patterns and we can make very educated guesses about how these are induced and in what context they tend to happen.
So for example, take near-death experience. If you read the literature on near-death experiences, what you are essentially reading are thousands and thousands of stories. So you already have a set of narratives. And these things tend to take place only in highly traumatic or tragic situations. It looks to me like you need some kind of trauma to have one of these. But you couldn’t conclude that until after you’ve read hundreds and thousands of what are essentially stories and then classified them and drawn comparisons and then finally, patterns and some kind of tentative conclusion.
So those are the methods of the humanities. That’s what the humanities do. They read story after story and come up with patterns and tentative conclusions. But we never prove anything.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but those are also the methods of many of the fields of social science, right? Sociologists do that, psychologists do that, anthropologists do that in a different way, so it’s not confined to the humanities. And I guess that gets me to the other thing that keeps cropping up when I hear this stuff is the track record of humanities and really its interplay with science hasn’t always been so great. One thing that popped out from your work is the whole psychoanalysis and because it’s kind of a hot button for me and kind of a litmus test for me, how do you process Freud?
Here’s a guy who seems to crop up in your work and I just can’t quite get my arms around that. If we knew then what we know now about Freud, in terms of fabricating cases and gross academic dishonesty, he wouldn’t be a forgotten man, he’d be like worse than a forgotten man. And yet, especially in the statistics in terms of references to Freud across all the disciplines at the university, the humanities keep referencing Freud and everyone else has kind of forgotten about him. How do you unpack that whole thing?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: First of all, I don’t think Freud was actually doing science. I think he was basically a grand interpreter and he was approaching mental states as texts and dreams as stories that had to be unwound and decoded with what were basically literary methods. So I think that’s why he has such a happy home in the humanities. It’s because we see him as a very skilled reader of text, and a very suspicious reader of text. Freud’s gift to us is to not read text on the surface. It’s to see them as coded and as hiding something and to try to find out that which is hidden.
So I understand that classical psychoanalysis is more or less considered witchcraft in academic psychology today, but I think there’s a treasure house of insight in Freud. And you have to remember, personally the man cured me, saved my life, so I have a hard time throwing him out.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but that’s so interesting on so many different levels. I mean, here’s that line that we walk. We have to acknowledge that, as you’re suggesting with the narrative thing, that truth is relative and we all come at our own truth through personal experience. But in terms of science and in terms of truth, which is also relative, don’t we have to come to some consensus about what are proper methods and what is self-promoting bull-crap? If I can, I’ll give you another example that’s more tied to the psi stuff that we’re talking about. I’m sure you get this, too, but people ask me about “What the Bleep Do I Know?” The movie, right?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, sure.
Alex Tsakiris: And I know I’ve heard you say that you’re not particularly impressed by it, and neither am I, but one of the reasons I’m not is because the person behind it, this J. Z. Knight, who claims to be channeling Ramtha who, even if you get past the idea that Ramtha is a Lemurian warrior who fought for Atlantis 35,000 years ago, even if you get past all that which may or may not be true, you have to deal with the fact that Ramtha is also advising her to buy horses and resell them at a higher price because they’re the reincarnation of other horses.
But you look at her Ramtha School of Enlightenment. And do people come through there and are they transformed? Are their lives improved? I have no doubt that they have genuine experiences, transformational experiences, but we have to say, “What does that rest on?” And that’s where I think science helps us. And I’d say the same thing with Freud. I don’t care how many people were cured or transformed. What does it rest on? And if there is no foundation to it or if it’s fraudulent, the foundation to it, then why do we want to carry it around with us?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: It’s like anything else, Alex. You carry around what works and you let go of what doesn’t. That’s how knowledge progresses from generation to generation. Again, there’s a lot in Freud that has played out extremely well, like for example, that children have sexualities. That was pure blasphemy when he was exploring that, but I doubt any good child psychologist would deny that today.
And the sexual roots of religious experience, I mean, that’s something that’s been played out in thousands and thousands and thousands of books by very fine scholars. And it’s not that you have to buy-I think the fallacy here is that you have to buy into the whole system to be inspired by any of it. I just don’t see that. I don’t understand that.
Freud, like many thinkers, he was a man of his own time and he’s going to see certain things and not see other things. You know, we’re no different. Right now we’re seeing certain things and we’re not seeing other things. A hundred years from now people will look back at us and say, “Well, that was a bunch of bull-crap.” And a lot of it is, and some of it’s not.
So I think you just have to have faith that by speaking in public, by publishing, by discussing these ideas, that there will be a kind of winnowing as the decades roll on. That’s my ultimate hope, anyway.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. I kind of hear you. And I think again, everyone has to stand on their reputation and on the work they produce, but in doing that I also think we have to call bullshit when we see it, you know? And I guess when I see J. Z. Knight and I say I can buy into it to a certain extent but I’ve got to call “Bull” here.
I say the same thing. It just seems to me improper to give a pass to a guy who, by current standards, just wouldn’t even be teaching at the junior college down the street because he’d be completely discredited for academic dishonesty. We wouldn’t tolerate it now, yet we look back with some kind of fondness.
I resist romanticizing that because I see the same problem cropping up when we look at the current crop of paranormal research. There’s some good stuff out there and there’s some bad stuff out there. The only way we can separate the wheat from the chaff is to do the good, hard science. I guess that’s where I’m still torn between the science and the humanities. I don’t know how the humanities helps us in that regard.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: I think your total rejection of Freud is a good example of your commitment to hard science because I would never suggest Freud was doing hard science. He was doing what we do in the humanities, again. He’s reading and interpreting texts, which often turn out to be dreams or people, in this case. And I would argue again that that’s a perfectly legitimate and profound thing to do. But not to confuse it with hard science. I hope you didn’t catch anything in the book that suggests that I was doing science. I’m not doing science. I’m not even interested in doing science because other people can do that very well.
So I’m a reader of texts. I’m an interpreter of stories. I’m a scholar of religious traditions. And some kinds of paranormal experiences look to me exactly like traditional religious experiences and they’re coded stories and they appear as text. And so I’m basically just saying, “Hey, we have something to offer here and we can contribute.” So again, I think it’s a humble argument. It isn’t a slash-and-burn argument. And it isn’t an unscientific or antiscientific argument. It’s simply a plea to let another voice into the conversation.
Alex Tsakiris: Well said. Fair enough. I think there’s definitely a place at the table for science-plus. And that’s how I see it.
But let’s get back to talking about your main area of interest, comparative religions. The other thing you sent me in preparation for this interview is a link to a recently published article that I found very interesting. I thought I’d just tee that up by asking you to tell us how the world looks from where you sit, going through your experiences in looking at different religious traditions. From your latest piece you draw out this near versus future when you look at religions, sameness versus differences. Big picture, Jeff, what’s the world look like from a comparative religion standpoint?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, it look on one level pretty grim. On another level there are rays of hope. The piece you’re referring to I was asked to write just a short opinion piece on the future of religion, by which I call “pathos,” and so I did that. And I basically said that the far future is much easier to guess at than the near future because in the far future, say 10,000 years out, none of the religions today will exist in their present forms.
That’s a pretty good guess from what we know about the past. If the future behaves at all like the past, none of the religions will be around. They’ll have morphed into something else or they will have died down. And so I basically say if you’re worshipping a God, you’re basically worshipping Zeus, because there are no more temples here for Zeus. So that’s the first argument.
The second argument, though, is that that doesn’t mean religion will go away. At least in the Western sort of economically stable, educated world, whether it’s in the West or Asia, I think religious belief and religious systems are going to hinge largely on this question we were talking about earlier. About what mind is or what consciousness is. If it’s established beyond a shadow of a doubt that consciousness is simply brain processes that we’re essentially biologically robots and mind is a kind of extremely elaborate froth of firing neurons, well, that’s going to have a devastating effect on the future of religion.
But my own guess is that that will not be established because it’s not true. So I think there will be a kind of philosophical, metaphysical base for religious belief but that doesn’t mean the individual belief systems will continue to have the same power over us. Basically what a comparative sees is that all belief systems are relative to their place in time and that none of them are completely true. And that they’re largely functional. They work for people. They serve certain needs, certain social needs and emotional needs. But they’re not literally true like a mathematical statement or something.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow, that opens up a whole area that we could go into because I think that area of truth in spiritual experience is something that’s also at the core of this. In my view, I think we get closer to that with some of the near-death experience research, as well as some of the medium communication research, deathbed vision research. I don’t know, I think that gives us hints to what the truth may really be there.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, absolutely. If you looked at that research, Alex, what you see is that it often conflicts pretty strongly with traditional religious beliefs. You’ll find stuff that will confirm, but you tend to get these one life narratives, these one life near-death experiences in the West, and you tend to get these reincarnations or these past life memories in Asia. There’s overlap; you get this fascinating overlap where you get the kid from the Baptist South remembering a previous life or something.
So again, I think that data set is incredibly important and it certainly suggests that consciousness survives bodily death. I’m happy going there. In fact, that’s my guess. That’s my belief or my tentative conclusion, but that doesn’t support a particular religious worldview. In fact, it directly challenges most of the ones I’m surrounded with here down in Texas.
Alex Tsakiris: I have to say, that’s exactly the issue we’ve explored on this show. It was interesting-most recently we had an interview with Dr. Gary Habermas from Liberty University, a very well-known Christian Apologist. A very nice guy, very well-spoken guy. He wrote a book on near-death experiences that address the same point.
It’s the standard line you hear from the Christian right, the Christian Fundamentalists, which is God yeah, Heaven yeah, all that other stuff that’s in the same container no. And it’s such an obvious contradiction in logic just to say that we can accept these accounts but only up to a point. And only to the point where they contradict our doctrine and then we can’t anymore…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: That’s right. And see what I…
Alex Tsakiris: …and I think it’s amazing.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: And what I’m saying as a comparative is not that at all. I am by no means pushing a particular worldview. I’m saying that near-death experiences and memories of past lives are still reflecting cultural beliefs; they’re still narratives; they’re still embedded in meaning systems that need to be interpreted. It can’t be handled necessarily literally.
That doesn’t mean that consciousness doesn’t survive bodily death. It means that when consciousness expresses itself, it always expresses itself to culture and so you need somebody who knows how to study culture in this mix. You can’t just be studying brain states. This doesn’t work.
Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough, fair enough. But I think there’s two steps here. I think the first step is crossing this materialistic paradigm where we jump across the chasm, right?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Alex Tsakiris: And we say like you just did, “Hey, by the best we can tell, consciousness seems to survive death. Get over it. We don’t know what it means but get over it.”
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: And then I think I’m very excited to dig into the content, do content analysis every which way from Sunday. But I’m not totally understanding what we’re missing if we did into that content from the means that we’re doing it already.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: I’m not sure we are missing anything. All I’m doing is highlighting that there are some huge, immensely important philosophical assumptions that are embedded in the data that we need to struggle with, and they’re largely for lack of a better term, theological or even metaphysical. For example, the near-death literature I’ve read-and I’ve read a lot of it-you really do have, in my mind at least, you have this huge question of whether we live once or whether we live many times.
You can read Ray Moody or some of the best near-death literature and come away thinking we live once and then are absorbed into the light or something. And then you read Ian Stevenson and you’re like well, geeze, I don’t know anymore. Maybe I’m coming back.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ve never gotten the impression from reading the NDE literature that we live one time. Some don’t explicitly talk about reincarnation but there’s plenty of accounts that hint at that in various ways. What are you referring to when you say that kind of one-shot deal?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, I think a number of the narratives do imply or assume that when the person dies that there’s not a return into another body or into another life form. And I think another big share of the literature assumes and even requires that we do. So these are the kinds of questions that of course the religions have debated for millennia. So all I’m saying again is that that data isn’t as clear as we think and that it lands us right in the middle of profound religious and philosophical debates that have been going on for a long, long time. It’s useful to know about that.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely right.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: But again, don’t mishear me. I don’t think you are mishearing me, but I’m not suggesting that near-death experiences are simply culture or nothing but local context. Not at all. I think consciousness is self-existent and does survive bodily death, but I also think it always, always, always expresses itself, at least here in this world we live in, through language and culture and context. So you’re never outside of that. But you may be outside of it when you die. I mean, I don’t know. If I’ve died before I don’t remember it.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Interesting. I think that’s a point well taken and I think it’s very easy to leave those influences out of our analysis, our take of it.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: It’s very easy to misunderstand that argument. This is the argument I make in Chapter Four of the book, with respect to Bertrand Russe’s work. I developed this model of consciousness and culture and I’m sure some people will read that as needless arguing, that it’s always just culture. Other people will read it as saying I believe in some kind of absolute consciousness beyond our culture. The latter may be more true than the former, but actually it’s both, again. I’m trying to maintain this both/and thinking and not keep falling into this either/or thinking.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me switch only slightly and I want to play for you a clip from your podcast when you talk about the culture war between science and religion. I want to chat about that for a minute, okay?
“The cultural wars and debates out there between what’s usually called science and religion are again, I think simplistic to the extreme. The religion side is often parodied as the kind of most literalistic and intolerant forms of fundamentalism and the scientific side is often parodied as the most materialistic and intolerant forms of scientism. So you have pure faith on one side and pure reason on the other and we’re supposed to believe, somehow, that these two things don’t meet in the middle. I find that completely unconvincing.”
Okay, let’s pull that apart because…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: That was pretty good.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Very good, you like that guy?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] Yeah, I like that guy.
Alex Tsakiris: We need to hear more of him, don’t we? [Laughs]
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah. [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: You know, my only kind of pullback on that as I was listening to it was of course, of course, of course, I agree. And at the same time, I wonder if you’re maybe papering over the divide a little bit. I have to tell you as someone who started going back to church for the first time in my adult life about a year ago, and I’m still-I have to put air-quotes around 90% of what I experience there…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] Yeah, me, too. Me too, Alex. I try to go back and I walk out completely disgusted.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, well, it’s hard. It’s hard but I feel the alternative in terms of an Atheistic worldview and all the influence we get from that, I do feel I need to be conditioned and balanced to that. But you know, when I first started going back, I fully expected to find this open-minded, emerging church, Christian, that just seemed to be alluded to. I don’t know about you but I didn’t. I mean, nice folks, but very, very much in the mindset of literalistic interpretation of scripture with a couple of papered-over liberalisms. And I don’t live in Houston, Texas. I live in Southern California. The church we attended is a very liberal, Protestant church. I don’t really see it.
When you flip over to the other side, in Skeptiko and talking to academic scientists, I mean, just as willfully ignorant of this stuff. Dogmatically materialistic, as you would expect. So I don’t know. Are we papering-over this divide in the cultural war? It seems to be pretty big in a lot of places.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: I think there’s a spectrum, Alex. And I’m sure everything you just said is absolutely correct. I can tell you some very similar stories. I suppose what I was referring-when you quoted me there I really wasn’t thinking of the churches, per se. I was thinking of this large body of Americans that don’t even necessarily associate with a particular church or synagogue or temple, but still consider themselves-this is the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd. I think they actually are very thoughtful about these things. And I do know there are lots of people in the liberal churches that are very thoughtful, too.
So I wouldn’t give up on the churches and the synagogues and the temples, but I would acknowledge everything you just said. I think the worldviews are largely compatible. So when I issue words of hope like that, I’m not so much thinking of returning, which is your language. I have no desire to return to a religious worldview that is essentially dysfunctional now.
I’m thinking more of creating a new religious worldview. Not me, personally, mind you, but as a culture. And this is what my work on the human potential movement was largely about in California there. It was looking at a group of people and a group of movements that had no intention of going back to dysfunctional religious systems. And adored science and wanted to take the best of science and the best of the religious traditions, fuse them into something for the future that we don’t even know what it looks like yet.
That’s where the historian can speak here, too. When religious systems start out, nobody knows where they’re going. They never, ever, ever come out of nowhere. They’re always syntheses or fusions of the scientific knowledge of the time and the different cultures that are interacting. So where I place my hope isn’t on Church A or Synagogue B or Scientist X. It’s the future generations who can put this stuff together in a completely new way, which I think is almost inevitable.
It doesn’t mean that there won’t be a lot of angst and cultural war and even violence. I suspect there will be, as there always has been. Ultimately, people are really interested in the truth, whatever that truth is. And I think it actually does win out eventually.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s really interesting and that’s encouraging. I wonder if you could flesh out this other idea, which I love that you introduced, and I forget where, but “the linchpin of consciousness” was the phrase I picked out. I think that’s so apropos. That really, consciousness is the linchpin in this cultural war. What is the truth about consciousness and why is that the linchpin?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: It’s the linchpin because all human being who are engaged in these cultural wars are, at the end of the day, forms of consciousness interacting with one another. Really, I think what’s being debated when you scrape away all of the personalities and the books, really what’s being debated is whether a kind of scientific materialism is the final answer to everything or is there this plus? Is most of the world in fact run by materialist and mechanical processes, but there’s this plus that’s involved in the world as well that we can call consciousness or mind? I think that’s really the ultimate debate in here.
And unfortunately, the debate keeps getting sidelined by what are essentially religious ideologies that are not friendly to science. For example, the Intelligent Design stuff. It’s kind of Creationism hiding as something else, and that will never work.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but we could argue the same thing about Darwinism. Darwinism is a very loose set of ideas hiding as science, and I don’t say that as a Creationist or anything like that. I just say that as…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: That’s my point, Alex, is that I think there are some very thoughtful philosophers out there that do think that there’s something we might call mind or consciousness that’s been involved in the evolutionary process. When anybody tries to articulate that, the sort of far-far skeptical left just swings the flag of Intelligent Design and Creationism. That’s not what’s being argued at all.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. And it’s not even the-you know, the other thing that you’re kind of alluding to but I don’t think you’re getting at really is that it’s not the far-far left. It’s the mainstream science. We’re caught in the middle and that’s the idea that I see as the linchpin. We’re caught in the middle of two radical and dominant cultural influences. One is science and materialism, which is dominant. I mean, we cannot get away from it.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] Right. Right.
Alex Tsakiris: And the other is Christianity, which is just as materialistic. I mean, that’s the thing I think people-and you can speak to this-but at the core, it’s very much in support of the materialistic idea, you know? I mean, beam me up. These miracles, they only happened here and here, these two times, as mentioned. All the other stuff, no, that could never happen because…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] Influence of the devil or something. A lot of my work actually, I use this phrase “beyond reason and beyond belief,” because I think those are the two poles. This hyper-materialistic rationalism that just refuses to see beyond its own assumptions. But on the other side then there’s this fundamentalism. Neither one of those, again, are helpful. And I think that’s exactly what you were just saying. We’re caught in the middle of that.
Alex Tsakiris: Not only are they not helpful but they’re not even true or proven in the normal ways that we understand them in science. I mean…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: No, and they behave awfully.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: They’re really nasty behaviors.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, the word that pops to mind is what you mentioned before, is humility. And I swear, I’ve walked into these debates and it’s just sent people off the edge and I didn’t intend to. But in talking to Christians or in talking to scientists and saying, “Don’t you think you can be at least be a little more humble with your ideas?”
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: When you say that to a Christian it can really get nasty really quick. “Humble? Why should we be humble? We’re right.” And you say that to a scientist. “Why should we be humble? We’re right,” you know? So it’s certainly refreshing to hear you coming from the humanities, if nothing else, that’s a fabulous contribution from where I sit. Our worldview is we need to be humble.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] Right. Again, that’s my both/and proposal, right? They’re in an either/or mindset. They’re in a slash-and-burn, winner takes all, but I will say, Alex, I will say this. I think the scientist is right to the extent that there are religious worldviews that are completely incompatible with scientific truth. And I think that needs to be said. I’m not-I’m by no means proposing a kind of relativism where any religious worldview should have the same say as any other. That’s ridiculous.
We simply know things about the world that renders particular religious doctrines silly. And we need to say that. We say that all the time in the study of religion but the difference is nobody listens to us. We’re just those funny humanities over on the side of campus that we can’t get grants; we can’t get anything because nobody thinks we know anything.
So when a scientist says it everybody listens. And what a scientist usually says about religion is often pretty silly. They usually don’t know what they’re talking about. But when we say something about religion nobody listens to us because it doesn’t matter.
Alex Tsakiris: I think you’re in the process of changing that.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about this fantastic project, Authors of the Impossible, and “Authors” having two different meanings there in that we’re all authors of the impossible but there’s also some very well-informed authors of the impossible. And maybe tell us a little bit about the movie, too, and all the other interesting stuff you have going on there.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, the actual book, it treats four what I call “authors of the impossible.” These are four men over the last 130 years who I think have thought in a very sophisticated way about what is today called psychic and paranormal experiences. Those men are Frederick Meyers, who is a classicistic at Cambridge in the 1880s and then in the 1890s he was one of the main figures of something called The London Society for Psychical Research.
These are the people who pioneered what we today call near-death experiences, near-death research. Again, what I’d point out is they were all Humanists. Meyers was a classicist and some of his colleagues were philosophers. They were working with scientists, too, but they were basically using Humanistic methods of textural analysis.
The second author is Charles Fort, this wonderful American humorist and writer of anomalies, that died in 1932. The third and fourth figures are both very much still alive.
One is Jacques Vallee, an astronomer turned computer scientist turned UFOlogist, who was immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in the French scientist character there, Dr. Lacombe.
And then Bertrand Méheust is a contemporary sociologist and philosopher from France whose works have unfortunately never been translated, so I wanted to write a piece on Bertrand, essentially introducing him to the English-speaking world. He’s spent his whole career writing very intelligently about animal magnetism type behavioral research and all things paranormal, up to the present day.
So those are the four authors, but actually what I’m doing there is I’m trying to make this argument that if we engage this material seriously enough we can move from a position of the paranormal writing us, in which we’re essentially caught in a story or a narrative, to an authorization where we can actually begin writing ourselves, as it were, through these kinds of experiences. So again, I’m making an argument for the textural or creative or literary dimensions of these sorts of experiences.
And then a local film company named XL Films optioned that book, so we’re making a feature documentary out of it here in Richmond, Texas. We’re in the process of filming it right now.
Alex Tsakiris: Where does the documentary seem to be taking you? Because I know those projects kind of take on a life of their own, and it also seems like the podcast is also an off-shoot of that. Can you tell us where that’s evolving to?
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, eventually it’s going to revolve around the four authors, two of whom are historical figures. We’ll have to recreate their lives. We’ve already interviewed Jacques and Bertrand at great length and we can do their bios and basic thoughts fairly quickly. But we’re also inter-weaving and even beginning with lots of contemporary people and their own experiences.
Again, the goal of the documentary is to hit this middle space between what I call the “History Channel or Larry King Live Effect” which is you have the experiencer and you have the professional skeptic and they just completely cancel each other out. You’re left with nothing. And then on the other side you have the metaphysical film or the science fiction fantasy where all of these things are taken seriously but just be incredibly exaggerated.
We’re trying to go down the middle and say, “You know, there are all these real people out there who have had these experiences and are confused by them. We’re going to try to give them a way of thinking about their own experiences that isn’t either/or, that is largely about creating meaning and story and about affirming that the human being is actually much greater than we imagined him or her to be. So we’re presenting a kind of much grander view of the human being than we see, I think, in the normal fare here. But not a naive one, not a critical one. We’re not doing the “What the Bleep do I Know?” stuff.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it does sound exciting, and from the little bit that I’ve seen-I’ve seen one clip on YouTube that you’ve put up…
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Oh, you saw the Doug Moench clip? Yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: I did. And that’s very intriguing. But then also I listened to your interview with Dean Radin, which I have to say is the best interview I’ve heard with Dean Radin. Thoroughly enjoyable. Went in some areas that I hadn’t heard him talk about before. I thought you balancing him out with some of these ideas you’re talking about speaks to what we might expect in the film in terms of exploring these topics, both scientifically and maybe more in this narrative format. It’s really very intriguing. It hasn’t been done before. It’s certainly something for all of us who listen to this show to look forward to.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, yeah. I know. Dean’s a close colleague and of course, he’s a very funny and fantastic interviewee. I’ve also interviewed Stephen Braude, the philosopher who wrote The Gold Leaf Lady, and…
Alex Tsakiris: Another excellent interview, right.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah, and both Steve and Dean will almost certainly be in the film when we’re finished with it. That’s sort of where we’re at with that.
I just finished another book. It’s of course, not out. It’s going to be in press soon, on the paranormal and popular culture. So it looks at pulp fiction, science fiction and superhero comics and tries to tease out some of the paranormal currents there by looking at the real-life experiences of the authors and artists, so I’m not focusing on the fantasy itself. I’m going back to the autobiographies and those sorts of journals and interviews with the actual artists and authors and listening to their own experiences with this stuff, which are often quite dramatic. And their response to it isn’t to go into the laboratory, it’s to create art. It’s to tell a story. It’s to paint; it’s to illustrate. So I’m trying to locate this interface between the paranormal and popular culture.
Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating. Well, it’s just a really fascinating body of work and I certainly wish you all the best of luck with it. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: Alex, it’s been a great interview. You’re very good at this.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, thanks Jeff, I don’t know about that, but we just keep pushing on.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: [Laughs] No, no, you’re good. I really appreciate it. I’ve done a lot of interviewing. Some of it’s been very, very bad. [Laughs] And this is easily on the very top of the other end.