176. Dr. Jeffrey Kripal On Science Fiction As a Trojan Horse For the Paranormal



Interview with author and Professor of Religious Studies examines how paranormal experiences have fueled the work of famous science fiction and comic book authors.


Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Rice University Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought, and author of, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, Dr. Jeffrey Kripal. During the interview Kripal discusses how science and culture affect our worldview:

Alex Tsakiris: It’s also interesting how you used the term “Trojan Horse” because one of the themes of the book is this indictment against science as we know it.  Science that insists not only that the paranormal doesn’t exist, but that it’s impossible.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Basically what I’m trying to get out there is that the thoughts we think and the worldviews we inhabit are determined by our cultures. The reigning culture is this scientific materialism that essentially argues that we’re only matter and that we can never get outside of our bodies and the particular historical context in which we find ourselves. What happens to human beings all the time is that they have these sorts of extraordinary experiences that do seem to take them outside of their context, outside their bodies, even outside of space and time which is how my artists and authors talk about it today.

So I’m simply pointing out that those sorts of experiences are dismissed or ignored because there’s no way to fit them into the reigning paradigm. But once we just open up the paradigm, then they make actually a good deal of sense. They actually become really interesting and powerful experiences to take into consideration. You can’t think yourself out of a box with the terms of the box. You have to find some other way to get out of the box.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but the paradox is that that’s what we’re required to do. I mean, we’re reading this book in this here-and-now-reality and yet we’re exploring this very different reality. Maybe you want to expound on this idea of “human as two” that recurs in your writing.
Dr. Jeff Kripal: The book came out of a series of interviews and readings of artists and authors who create these forms of popular culture. A lot of them are very clear that when they have these paranormal experiences they were not in their normal sense of self or their normal psyches. The experience is essentially one of being split in two where part of the human being is outside of space and time and part of the human being is in space and time.

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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome back Dr. Jeff Kripal to Skeptiko. Jeff holds a chair in Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Rice University in Houston. He was a very popular guest when he joined me last year to talk about his excellent book, Authors of the Impossible. He’s back today to talk about his latest, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.

Jeff, thanks for joining me. Welcome back.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Thanks for having me back again.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s just my pleasure. The first thing I just had to mention about this book and get it out there in hopes that other people will experience it, is that it’s just an absolutely beautiful book. I mean, the book itself. Of course it’s well-written and beautifully written but the artwork, the graphics, the illustrations—even the page layout. It all works together. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, you don’t read this book; you get into it like a warm bath. It’s great.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, we thought long and hard about all those issues and the press responded with a lot of resources and a wonderful artist named Michael Brehm who did all that. He happened to be a comic book fan from his youth onward. So it all kind of came together.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s great. You know, it’s interesting that you mention your involvement of a comic book fan. I’ve heard several interviews you’ve given on the book and there’s always this angle of the comic book fan or the science fiction fan, which might make our little dialogue here today.

I’m not a science fiction fan. Not a comic book fan. And I have to say that the book is great. I really love the book. But I wonder sometimes if the comic book/science fiction angle—I know that’s interesting to a lot of people—but if it somehow takes things in a different direction. This is a deep book. Or maybe it’s much broader than that. I mean, we’re talking about spiritually transformative experiences, UFOs, alien abductions, consciousness, past lives, materialistic science. The comic book angle and superhero angle is there but you’re really trying to pull together a lot of stuff, aren’t you?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah. There’s two ways I talk about the questions I think you’re asking there. One is in sort of a humorous, autobiographical response, which this is my mid-life regression book. I’m going back to my adolescence with this one, so that explains the comic book/sci fi frame. But the other response which is more serious is it’s a Trojan Horse book. I really do think I’m trying to address some really serious, philosophical issues but I’m doing it through popular culture and so my hope is that the reader will pick up the book, see the pretty pictures, and get sucked in and let the horse in the gate, as it were.

Then all these really weird ideas start popping out and it’s too late—the horse is inside the gate, as it were. So that’s really the rhetorical strategy of the book. But I’m also trying to make a larger case that people’s unusual experiences don’t just occur in religious contexts or on a mountain or an ocean. They also occur, believe it or not, through pulp fiction and through watching movies and doing art. These things don’t honor the boundaries we assume they honor.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, right, which is an interesting theme. It’s also interesting, this point that you make and the term used is “Trojan Horse,” because one of the themes of the book is also this—I guess we could say an indictment against science as we know it, materialistic science, science that insists not only that the paranormal doesn’t exist, which is pretty outrageous, but that it’s impossible. For that, what I’d like to do is read a brief quote from the book and then have you expound on that a little bit.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Sure.

Alex Tsakiris: “We are essentially locked-in and chained down to a worldview that does not seriously question itself. That by definition cannot question itself. How, after all, can one experience beyond matter in a world that claims there is nothing outside matter? And how can one step out of a worldview that says it cannot step out of a worldview? Hence these sorts of paranormal experiences which violate both our materialism and our contextualism can only elude our grasp and frustrate our cognitively primitive attempts to understand them.”

Tell us about that.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Basically what I’m trying to get out there is that the thoughts we think and the worldviews we inhabit are determined by our cultures. The reigning culture is this scientific materialism that essentially argues that we’re only matter and that we can never get outside of our bodies and the particular historical context in which we find ourselves. What happens to human beings all the time is that they have these sorts of extraordinary experiences that do seem to take them outside of their context, outside their bodies, even outside of space and time which is how my artists and authors talk about it today.

So I’m simply pointing out that those sorts of experiences are dismissed or ignored because there’s no way to fit them into the reigning paradigm. But once we just open up the paradigm, then they make actually a good deal of sense. They actually become really interesting and powerful experiences to take into consideration. You can’t think yourself out of a box with the terms of the box. You have to find some other way to get out of the box.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but the paradox—and we’ll return to this over and over again—is that that’s what we’re required to do. I mean, we’re reading a book so we are required then to—maybe you want to expound on this and talk about this “human as two” idea that recurs in your book and in your writing. Explain to us the “human as two” –I love this phrase of yours, human amphibian. Explain what you’re talking about.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: So the book came out of a series of interviews and a series of readings of artists and authors who create these forms of popular culture. Because most of them have lived the last 50 years or so, they’re all more-or-less informed by basic science, basic neural anatomy, basic psychological principles. A lot of them are very clear that when they have these experiences, these experiences were taking place in a place that was not in their normal sense of self or their normal psyches.

The experience is essentially one of being split in two where part of the human being is outside of space and time and part of the human being is in space and time. So this phrase of mine, “the human as two”” is just trying to capture that experience. They then take off and take it further and get into various bilateral models of the human brain and talk about the left brain as its rational, linguistic, space and time-oriented way of knowing. The right brain being this mediator of some other form of mind or consciousness that’s not determined by reason and language and spatial and temporal categories.

So I’m simply trying to name what these people are describing in a way that can apply across the board as opposed to just their particular experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, and let’s apply it across the board because obviously you have a rich, scholarly background in religious experiences that speak to this, right? So all these transcendent experiences across culture, whether it’s a Kundulini experience or a Christian Catholic rosary experience, a meditation experience, there’s just a variety of different transformative experiences that give us this very real sense of “human as two” and yet, the other theme in the book is this balancing—not even balancing because you can’t balance it necessarily. You just have to kind of jump from one world to another. So any thoughts on that of this…

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Absolutely. I mean, again the phrase, “the “human as two”” is meant as sort of the balancing point because of course the history of religion, the history of these experiences were usually understood to be some kind of God or deity or transcendent world intervening in the life of the person, wherewith these modern mystics, these authors and artists, they’re usually suspicious of those kinds of religious projections. They don’t see these experiences as proving the existence of God, per se, or some Heaven or some Hell.

They see these experiences establishing that the “human as two”, not that the human being is experiencing God but that the human experience of God is actually a human experience of some other aspect of the human being. God is, if you will, a name previous cultures and eras have given to this other part of who we actually are. So this ends up effectively divinizing human beings, but not the social self or the ego, not what I call the “Clark Kent” aspect of who we are but this sort of secret self, the other side of it that peeks through very rarely but fairly consistently throughout human history. So it’s really a way of trying to humanize and bring down the divinity into human experience.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I’m just not so sure we know enough about it that we can pull it down to that level. The other thing I guess I’d pull out of that, this dialogue you have with the reader in Mutants and Mystics, and that’s that there’s a certain humility that I think comes from understanding the “human as two”. And it’s a humility that is lacking in science and in a lot of cases in religion, too. It’s humility that says, “You know what? I have to acknowledge that we’re just in the kindergarten playground here.”

We’re doing something called consensus reality or consensual reality where we don’t know what’s really going on but we’re just going to say this is what’s going on. So can we really start saying those kinds of things, that it’s not a Divine, it’s—don’t we have problems with the whole thing as soon as we try and wrap our arms around it? Don’t we have to chunk it down?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, yes and no, Alex. Obviously everything you just said I couldn’t agree with more, right? And I’m happy you got that out of the book because that is one of the messages that I wanted to send. We need far more humility here and much less certainty. On the other hand, I think it is a natural and positive human inclination to want to understand these things, to want to make sense of things that are part of our world. But that’s how science is driven and I think it’s how a lot of religion has been driven, as well.

I think it’s also true that a lot of the earlier religious explanations just don’t work for us anymore. I think acknowledging that and moving to some other kind of model is a perfectly healthy and perfectly natural thing to do. But that doesn’t mean we then say, “Well, now we understand everything and everybody needs to agree that this is what’s happening.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m arguing, as you know, much more for a comfort level with chaos which is what I think we see if we look up close at people’s experiences and reports of these things.

They’re often extremely strange and they press at all of our categories. I’m simply in the book trying to acknowledge that and then to offer some other categories, some other ways of speaking and thinking that can start to organize the chaos. The “human as two” is one of those. But it’s a very humble phrase. It carries a lot but it leaves what that other part of the II is open.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I love the way you put it in the book. Maybe you want to comment on that, too. You say that you asked the question, “Is there a science fiction superhero meta-narrative? And might that help us bring order and meaning to people’s lives?” So expound on that a little bit.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: The book is an attempt to look at the last 100 or 150 years of early, early science fiction and pulp fiction and then comics and then film. It focuses in on a set of what I call “myth themes” or mythical themes that appear over and over and over again. All of these myth themes, or at least the first three or four of them for sure, are really attempts to think about classical religious themes in scientific or para-scientific terms.

They’re attempts to think through problems that in previous culture would have been framed as religious problems but today get framed in terms of science fiction and like the secret identity of the superhero and how he lives in the world with his secret identity. So that’s essentially what I’m doing. I’m looking at science fiction and superhero comics as sort of alternative ways of thinking about classical religious problems, but in more secular terms, of course, because those are the terms of our culture. That’s one of the things I’m doing in the book, hence the title, Mutants and Mystics. Mutants are our new mystics.

Alex Tsakiris: Right, but now at the same time I’ve got to pull you back to the comment you made just before that because you’re also trying to pull out the reality or take some kind of scientific approach to looking at the reality of this. I think that’s where I want to come at this, too. You write at length about Philip Dick, a brilliant science fiction writer that many folks listening will probably be familiar with. You look at his story as a narrative, which I understand where you’re coming from.

You bring a lot to it from that narrative perspective in terms of these mystic themes and the other points that you’re making. But I can also look at it more just from a more concrete, scientific, spiritually transformative experience and I can tell you I’ve had guests on like Hazel Courteney, who’s had almost the identical kind of spiritually transformative, opening-up, all-knowing experience. Or I could introduce you to Dr. Yvonne Kason of Canada, who had a similar experience and went on to study spiritually transformative experiences through a number of people.

We could get down to really concrete stuff like hey, eat sugar when you’re having these kinds of experiences because it will ground you. Or apply this certain breathing technique. So what about this kind of nuts-and-bolts, scientifically-oriented approach to looking at these experiences versus the narrative? I mean, we have to do both but if we jump right into the narrative do we miss understanding the physical reality of what’s going on in these rather unbelievably spiritual experiences? Do you know where I’m driving at?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: I think I do, Alex. Again, this is part of what I hope is my humility. I’m not a scientist. I don’t do science. The book is not about explaining, for example, Philip K. Dick’s experience in neurological or psychopathological or chemical terms. We can do that; Dick did it at length. That will take us so far. What I’m much more interested in doing because it’s what I’m trained to do is show how someone like Dick uses modern cosmology or genetics or evolutionary theory or quantum physics as his framework for making sense of what happened to him.

That doesn’t mean he knows his quantum physics or his evolutionary biology or his genetics or that I know any of those fields. It simply means that in the modern world, when certain kinds of people have these extraordinary things happen to them, they draw from the culture, from the cultural surround, whatever is useful or seems like it resonates with what happened to them. It turns out that a lot of these people draw on physics and evolutionary biology to explain what’s happening to them. I’m simply trying to take that very, very seriously as a historian of religions. Now again, what are the causal mechanisms? What’s the biology or the chemistry of this or that…

Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, hold on, Jeff. I don’t want to go down the wrong path. I’m with you and you do a marvelous job of that. But here’s the gap. Here’s what’s missing in my opinion, and that’s that all those scientific, neurological, biological explanations are full of crap. They all are built from this apologetics of materialism, this denial that these things really happen. So they’re really in the ultimate end, they’re just trying to  explain it away. I think there’s something to be gained and the gap is approaching these from a reality-based standpoint.

It’s saying, “Okay, these things really do happen. They cannot be understood in materialistic terms.” Now where do we go from here? One of the challenges, I think, is that the narrative as a jumping off point is this pop culture perspective that you bring to it, which is wonderful in one sense and in another sense seems to be bound by the same paradox that you draw out. The pop culture particular, popular culture, is both reflective of and driving at the same time culture. So it becomes this mechanism which is going to create nonsense by definition because we’re in this as we started with saying, we’re in this materialistic paradigm that we can’t get out of.

So how do we fill that gap of saying we need a science to talk about these extraordinary kinds of experiences that you’re talking about?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Well, I think that’s why you see these things celebrated in popular culture and not in conventional science or the conventional academy. For all that you’re saying, and I actually agree with everything you just said, it’s also true that popular culture is the realm in which the imagination in some way is the most free in our culture. You can say things in a science fiction film or comic book or novel that you simply can’t say from the podium of the White House or from the podium of a graduation at a university.

There’s a kind of freedom there. So what my artists and authors are doing, I think, is they’re taking their experiences that cannot be treated seriously in these other contexts and instead of arguing for them scientifically or arguing for them religiously, they’re turning them into art. That art then enters the culture, becomes fantastically successful in some cases—I would argue precisely because it’s encoded with these paranormal events—and then that art is a kind of feedback loop.

It flips back into people’s future experiences. So you have this really interesting feedback mechanism between the very private, very intimate experiences of the artists and authors which then get turned into art which then feeds back into other people’s experiences and on and on and on. That loopiness between what I call “consciousness and culture” in the book is really what I’m trying to drive at. I’m trying to get away from this kind of simplistic, is it all true or is it all false question, which I think doesn’t get us very far. So I’m not quite answering your question, Alex, but I’m just trying to rearticulate what I think the book is about which may not be about what you’re asking.

Alex Tsakiris: No, I think it very much is. I think one of the reasons I guess I’m more passionate about these points is because the book really stirs the pot in a really interesting way that I think is going to provoke a lot of thinking among a lot of people on a lot of different levels. You’re reflecting some of the themes in the book indirectly as well as directly in the way that you’re approaching them. What you’re talking about right there I think is fascinating, that maybe the pop culture is an end-run around the institutions of science and religion and a way of reintroducing these ideas.

Now you also talk about in the book the possibility that there might be a different reality to that looping kind of effect than we would normally accept. That time isn’t at all what we even think and that the future is creating the past in some kind of strange way that we don’t understand.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right. That’s certainly what these authors and artists would want to argue out of their own experiences. The sense I get from these people and these materials is that mind is not what we think it is. Certainly there’s a form of mind, probably the normal form of mind which is simply a function of our bodies and our brains and our local chemistry, as it were. But often or occasionally in these particular individuals some other kind of mind beams in, as it were, and that mind doesn’t appear to be constrained by temporal or spatial boundaries.

Once you see that enough times—if you see it once it’s stunning enough but after you’ve seen it a dozen or two dozen or two hundred times in different individuals and correspondence and students, you begin to wonder about what our limits are as human beings. That’s where I’m pointing with the book at the end, is what this really opens up for me is the question of what an earlier tradition or earlier era called the soul.

We tend to think of the soul as this little thing that inhabits a single body and leaves at death, but that isn’t what’s being experienced here. There’s some kind of supermind or cosmic consciousness that’s creating culture and creating us backwards and forwards in time because it’s not even in time to begin with. That’s where you get into all these science fiction notions and all of these superpowers.

Alex Tsakiris: Give us some examples, if you would, briefly from the book that illustrate this point that you’re making. There’s a lot of great ones in the book that this is not a theoretical exercise in terms of mutants and mystics. There’s a lot of really concrete examples of people who have had these experiences and how they’ve affected their art.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right. One of my favorites is a very, really legendary comic book and fantasy artist named Barry Windsor-Smith, who I grew up with as a kid in the early ‘70s. He drew Conan the Barbarian and he took the art of comic books to really a whole different level. In 2000 or around the turn of the Millennium, he published a two-volume autobiography called, Opus, in which he talked about really the sort of paranormal background of his art in the early ‘70s that none of us knew about.

The experience that set these all off was it was a three year precognition. So what happened was while he was literally drawing Conan the Barbarian in his parents’ home in London in the early ‘70s, he had a daydream or what he experienced as a daydream in which he saw these men and this woman in this office having a very distinct conversation. He kind of forgot about it and then the next day he was drawing a Conan page and the page disappeared below him and he saw this large white truck and this traffic jam that appeared through the page. He didn’t think a lot of it.

Three years later then, he’s now living in New York. He’s drawing for Marvel Comics. That exact office scene plays out, same men, same woman, same exact conversation. And then the following day he hears all this honking and he goes out and he sees that exact white truck stuck in that exact same kind of parking mess.

So that kind of time loop experience shatters what he can think of as reality and that then initiates three months of these sorts of experiences which involve all sorts of paranormal events from sensing things on a couch that had been owned by someone, to encountering light forms. All sorts of things which he then again weaves into his drawing, weaves into his storytelling. When people have this experience of a precognition, it’s very ambiguous what’s happening. You can say that that person in the present is perceiving something in the future but you can just as easily say that the person in the future is affecting a cognition in the present.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. Exactly.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Because of the nature of time and the violation of linear causality here, it’s all up for grabs. We’re in a total dark zone there about what’s actually happening.

Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. And I think that gets back to the thing we were talking about before, humility. It immediately brings you down to a level of humility that’s gee, I really have to re-examine everything that I think is real and all the assumptions that I’m making. Then I think it’s particularly challenging when you refer to “human as two”. It’s a further splintering.

It’s a “human as two”I or IV or V because that other human has to deal with this nuts-and-bolts reality of our life and things that are going on and eating and sleeping. But it also has to deal with these other forces that push against our reality and say, “Oh, no, this is reality.” Science says this or religion says this. So our culture, that is, as you talk about in the book is splintering us further from this “human as two”, isn’t it?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right, because we live in multiple cultures at any one time so we’re being told all sorts of things and we’re being written in various ways. This is part of what the book is about is the other interesting pattern here is that writers and artists often have this experience that what they write or what they draw or create then plays out in the real world. So there’s this really weird connection between imagining something and something happening in the world. That happened to Philip K. Dick a lot, actually.

So the question is again to what extent are we offering certain aspects of our world and to what sense are we being authored or written by not some God but by our culture? By the language we speak? How can we use that language and use that culture world to not be written in such a clear way? We may not like the story we find ourselves in.

Alex Tsakiris: So why don’t you share an example of that? I think that would be interesting to folks. Either from Philip Dick or the Planet of the Apes story is another one.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah. The book opens with a comic book writer by the name of Doug Moench, who’s writing a Planet of the Apes story in the late 1970s. It involves a gorilla named Brutus invading the human hero’s home and grabbing his wife by the neck and putting a gun to her head and physically forcing the human hero to do his will.

Doug finished that scene and heard his wife holler at him from the other side of the house. He went to see what was up and there was a man in a black hood with his arm around his wife’s neck to a gun to her head. So essentially what happened was he imagined the story which then played out virtually verbatim in the real world seconds later.

This had a profound effect, of course, on the author. He couldn’t write actually for months. Or couldn’t write the same way because he was so afraid of fantasizing, which you can well understand. So there’s an example.

You can read that as a precognition that then gets filtered through fantasy and then plays out in the world, but it also speaks very powerfully to one of the themes of the book which is that people’s paranormal experiences are often very closely tied to language. There’s something about language; there’s something about words that carry these experiences alive. And also images. We know images are right-brain functions and words are left-brain functions so these comic book writers and authors talk a lot about the power of the comic book genres combining the image and the word and catalyzing these sorts of left-brain/right-brain symphonies, as it were.

So I’m really interested in the book as I was in Authors of the Impossible about showing how paranormal experiences aren’t just neutral experiences. They often carry meaning; they often work through story. They’re often coded, really, by language itself.

Alex Tsakiris: Then let’s take that and that whole set of experiences and use that to sequeway into talking about UFOs and alien abduction. As if it isn’t enough that you tackle the whole UFO experience, you also tackle UFOs and alien abduction. You spend a good deal of time talking in the book with Whitley Streiber, who of course is best known for his books chronicling his own alien abduction. Tell us what you think the tie-in is there.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: The book ends with a chapter on Whitley Streiber and I use Whitley’s corpus to illustrate the themes of the entire book because virtually every theme in the book can be seen in Streiber’s corpus. Streiber’s really interesting for a number of reasons. One is that he starts out as a horror fiction writer. He was a quite successful horror fiction writer in the ‘70s and early ‘80s before he had his infamous abduction experience in Christmas of 1985.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me just interject here because I’d love to get your take. You share your feelings about how horror really has a tie-in to religious, spiritual kind of thought.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Yeah. It’s a common misconception that religion is about the good. It’s about being peaceful and good to each other and holiness is some kind of state of equanimity and all positive things. In fact, if you look at the history of religion, if you even look at the Bible, a lot of encounters with the Divine or the sacred are incredibly terrifying, often very dangerous, and some are actually deadly. So the sacred is not just for good; the sacred is both profoundly attractive but also often terrifying and destructive.

So horror, the modern genre of horror films and horror fiction are calling up these ancient religious impulses. I think the reason that horror is so powerful is that to get a profound religious experience, you somehow have to suppress the ego function. You somehow have to do something pretty dramatic to the person. One way to do something really dramatic to the person to get them out of themselves, as it were, is to scare the living crap out of them because that’s a form of ecstasy. It’s a mild form of ecstasy. So horror fiction often has these religious qualities to it. I think that’s why some people, lots of people actually, like to go and be terrified watching a movie or reading a book. Does that answer the question?

Alex Tsakiris: Yes. So let’s get back to Whitley and the role he plays.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: So Whitley was a horror fiction writer and around Christmas of 1985 he had something very, very bad happen to him on the evening of Christmas. He then was extremely anxious, extremely upset, and he went to a psychiatrist actually, to address this problem. The psychiatrist treated it as a crime scene, actually, because Whitley had also been anally raped during this experience. So the psychiatrist assumed a crime was involved and to treat Whitley’s anxiety put him under hypnosis.

What emerged was this very elaborate scenario of these strange beings that he calls “visitors” who essentially abducted him. So Strieber, a year later, publishes an autobiographical account of that event and a series of subsequent events, tries to make sense of all of this, and if you read the book—it’s called Communion—it’s probably the most famous book ever published on the alien phenomenon. The painting on the cover of this almond-eyed visitor really is what freezes the image of the alien into popular cultures since 1986 to now.

If you read the book though and you read it closely, what you find is a very smart man doing some very nuance things with a very traumatic experience that he went through. Essentially what he suggests is that something in fact was in the room with him but whatever it was he imagined or saw in this hypnotic state he was in with his psychiatrist almost certainly is not what was there. In other words, Streiber’s very aware that whatever was interacting with him, and it may well have been some aspect of himself, was acting on him in a violent way but also in a transformative way and it was engaging his imagination.

Because he was a professional imaginer, a professional writer of fantasy, his experiences were quite elaborate and very sophisticated and so reading Streiber and reading four or five books after that, just trying to make sense of all this, which he traces back to his childhood. He traces it back to some childhood trauma that he went through, perhaps on his father’s military base. He speculates at length about all of this but he always leaves the question open about the status of these beings that he encountered.

You get the sense, if you read enough of Streiber, that he doesn’t think of these things as “out there” in any simplistic sense. He also thinks of them as “in here.” So again you get the same as the “human as two”. You also get a profound sense from Streiber that this is what a religious experience looks like if you live in a science fiction worldview as opposed to a Roman Catholic one or a Buddhist one or a Hindu one. He’s very aware of the role of the imagination and the role that he played in it as a professional writer but he also insists that it has some greater reality to it, as well.

Alex Tsakiris: And that’s the challenge I think, Jeff, that I keep bumping up against because on one hand, when Authors of the Impossible book that you previously wrote that was another fantastic book that I encourage anyone to read, a great book, you explore the writings and the research of Jacque Vallee, who is a UFO researcher. He was one of the first to draw our attention to the larger paranormal or spiritual context in which these UFO phenomena occur.

He said, “If you’re just looking for spaceships and little green men, you’re not looking in the right place. You need to look also at ghosts and fairies and all the other stuff out there.” So I get that. But to diminish these experiences to just that—which you’re not doing—also loses part of the story.

I think while Whitley Streiber is certainly saying that maybe it is by definition more than he can fully comprehend or tell you about in some story, still there is some reality to it. So do we focus on that or do we focus on the declassified Secret government memos that researchers like Richard Dolan publish who say, “Here they are. Here it is from our highest military officials in the 1950s saying ‘Yeah, we saw them. We went to shoot them down,’ so there’s a physical reality to this that we have to deal with, too. We have to somehow then try and understand.”

Another researcher—and the name escapes me right now—points to not only is there this physical reality that we’ve known about but that the government from the beginning has understood the consciousness of facts that are part and parcel to this. He traces that immediately what do they start doing? MK Ultra up in Canada said if these others, if these visitors can somehow control our minds or control the mind of people they encounter, we need to know about that. Let’s go start doing mind control projects of our own.

And that feeds into MK Ultra and has its origins in the remote viewing project and all the rest of that. So again back to the theme that we’re talking about with the spiritual. There’s a reality there that we have to balance in terms of understanding this stuff.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right. And so the mantra of the newest book is it’s probably both/and and not either/or. This is where it gets so mind-boggling. You can look at the UFO phenomena; you can look at the military records; you can look at the government stuff and you can get this sense that okay, these are objects flying around in the sky. But you can also then read the actual human encounters, the abduction literature, and then it looks very much like these are not spaceships. These are some kind of paranormal encounter that’s getting framed in science fiction Cold War terms.

What we probably have is all of that. I mean, Whitley’s abduction experiences took place—he himself would be the first to say—in a Cold War environment in which he had grown up on bad B science fiction movies. I’ve heard Whitley say pointblank that if we had better science fiction movies, people would have better abduction experiences. The reason his experiences were initially so negative had something to do with the Cold War era in which he was raised.

So there again there’s that both/and. He’s not dismissing his experiences; he’s not reducing them to politics or to simple projection. He’s saying that it’s all woven together. And particularly with the UFO stuff, the problem with the UFO stuff is that it’s a huge grab-bag. I am virtually positive that some people’s sightings of UFOs are sightings of our own secret military technology. Why not, right? I am also convinced that some people’s encounters with UFOs are essentially these sorts of religious experiences that I’m talking about, right?

I am also very certain that some UFO accounts are purely fraudulent, made up for disinformation reasons or people just screwing with us. Who knows? All of that stuff gets thrown into this grab-bag called the UFO and it all gets confused and it all mixes around and it all influences each other. That’s why we have the mess we have with it. We don’t understand because we’re putting all of these things into the same basket, probably because they are related in some way that we don’t understand yet.

Alex Tsakiris: Right. I just have to throw in one other category there. I’m very persuaded that some are experiences with a technology that is far beyond what we could possibly imagine from our current technological capabilities, particularly if you look at ones that are 50 years old and traveled at 40,000 and turned at right turns and those kinds of things, which there is pretty good documentation on. It only takes one of those to upset the whole apple cart.

I guess there’s one other aspect of this that I’d like to draw your attention to in the time that we have and get your comments on. I guess I’ve touched on this before but in both these cases of the spiritually transformative experiences and the UFO/alien abduction experiences, there is also this resistance that maybe even goes to the level of deliberate deception about our understanding of that reality. So we talked about the end run that pop culture can do on this, and I think you do a great job of exploring that and showing the different dimensions of that and how it works.

But what if another part of our here-and-now reality is that we are intentionally being misinformed about this and being distracted and deceived into thinking that it’s not true? And what we’ve focused on most in this show is how that’s just definitely happening in the paranormal, parapsychology, and spiritual realm where any research that suggests that for example, prayer might be efficacious, it’s derided and dismissed or neuroscienced away.

The same with out-of-body experience or near-death experience or mediumistic experiences. There’s really an organized effort to send us in a different direction. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: With respect to the UFO stuff or with respect to the whole…

Alex Tsakiris: Both. Both because I think it’s another case where I don’t know what the ultimate truth is. Some of it’s obvious that our materialistic science is reflective of our materialistic culture and that the whole machine doesn’t work unless we all are believing in that. So that could be a reason why when UFOs pop up we get this disinformation. When spiritual experiences pop up we get this disinformation and this denial kind of stuff. Some of it’s just genuine disagreement but some of it seems to go beyond that into a level that there’s this real effort to misinform us about these things.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Right. So two things. One of the themes that I talk about in the book is the paranormalists screwing with us, right? Particularly through an author named John Keel, who pushed that very far. I would say two things. I would say that a lot of these experiences you’re talking about that border on a kind of paranoid worldview or conspiracy theory, I think have a kind of exaggerated form and a kind of fairly accurate form.

So the accurate form I would put this way: each of us to the extent we are limited social egos operating in this immense cultural environment, for the most part we are not in control. We are being written in ways that we can only begin to fathom. By that I mean very simply. I don’t mean by aliens or the government. I mean by the language we speak; I mean by the culture in which we live in. I mean by the religions that we profess and practice. All of these things write us. We are written. We are not writing ourselves.

So this notion of a conspiracy or this notion of a paranoia,  I think is giving it something very real and very profound. To the extent though that then gets literalized and people start talking about the government keeping aliens frozen below military bases and signing contracts with aliens to experiment on human beings—that’s where all my red flags go up and I say, “That’s too far. You’ve just crossed the crazy line.”

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, maybe there’s this crazy line out there, but really, Jeff, I take the first part of what you’re saying—and that’s really what I’m getting at is that we have Richard Dolan and we have the memos, right? So we know there’s a reality to the cover-up, to the conspiracy. It’s plain so how far we take it seems to be less of an issue to me than the fact that we don’t deal with the reality of the cover-up.

In the spiritual realm you talk about William James. You talk about conspiracy. It was clearly an organized effort to suppress his thoughts and his ideas and to make them less prominent among the psychology community because he was the most prominent psychologist. My red flags go up when anyone wants to talk about the crazy line and draw it here or there. They first have to deal with the reality of the conspiracy, the reality of the deception to the extent that we know it. Then we can start defining where the crazy line is.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: But Alex, me included we all have a line which we won’t cross for a variety of reasons, some of them good…

Alex Tsakiris: Cultural reasons. For a lot of cultural reasons that you just talked about, right?

Dr. Jeff Kripal: I’m simply admitting where my line is. I’m not saying that the government never keeps secrets from us or that the military hasn’t done everything to squash our knowledge of the history of UFO sightings. I’m fine with all that. That’s one thing but some of the conspiracy theories that float around there, they just take it so far and they look to me like religious claims, not strong empirical claims. And again, not that I’m bound so some kind of empiricism; it’s just that’s where my suspicion goes.

Part of it, too, is I belong to a large institution. I know how institutions work. I just find it truly impossible that an institution as large as a nation-state can keep such things under wraps for so long. I’m suspicious of that. But again, not that we’re not told everything. I understand that. The fact is most nation-states have released their UFO records. We’re the real exception here. I just think we have to be careful in this zone because there’s so much disinformation floating around. There’s so much fraud and there’s so many genuine encounters that have traumatized real human beings, and it’s all mixed together.

That’s all I’m trying to say. And that’s what the book was trying to show, is that not only do we have disinformation, fraud, and real encounters but then we have popular culture which is informing all of that and which is informed by all of that and which in some ways glues it all together in our culture. So we’re inhabiting all of this complexity all at the same time.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s such an interesting point. I won’t get into it because we’re running out of time but I think that whole dialogue feeds back into this recursive circular kind of way that is really drawn out in the book.

Again, the book is Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Jeff, it’s just a tremendous effort and I appreciate so much you coming on Skeptiko to talk about it.

Dr. Jeff Kripal: Again, I’m honored and delighted to be here, Alex.