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The flip, and the flipped: leaving materialism behind. An interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal.

Reading | Philosophy

Hans Busstra | 2021-04-30

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Hans Busstra is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. In collaboration with Essentia Foundation he is doing research on a new documentary that will explore idealism as a potential new worldview replacing materialism. In this series of articles, and a podcast series that will be published later this year, he shares the highlights of his research conversations with scientists, scholars and experts.

A lot gets lost when making a documentary. During research you usually speak to dozens of experts who will give you great insights into a subject. But researching, filming and editing a documentary film is a merciless ‘kill your darlings’ process: only a fraction of all quotes recorded make it to the final edit of your documentary. Since the project I’m currently working on—a documentary on idealism—has such depth to it, I decided it’s worthwhile to share all gems found along the way.

What one can only hope for during the research of a complex topic is to encounter the right guide—as a storyteller I would say ‘sage’—who can help you navigate the unknown waters. I’m grateful to have stumbled on someone who exactly fits this profile: Jeffrey Kripal.

Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. My first acquaintance with Kripal’s work was through his book ‘The Flip’,

an essay—as Kripal calls it himself—in which Kripal makes a case to open our eyes for dazzling anomalies that contradict our materialist-reductionist worldview. Those who do, risk to ‘flip’.

Kripal describes flipped scientists, how they make sense of the world after leaving behind the mainstream paradigm of materialism and he goes on to stimulate the reader to explore some of these alternative worldviews for themselves. His book has received numerous positive reviews, and the well respected journalist Michael Pollan, who himself has written on the mystery of the mind, called it “mindblowing”.

 

How do you define materialism, and what are your objections to it?

The fundamental premise of materialism is that there’s this thing called matter, and that only it is real, and that any kind of subjective form of awareness or consciousness, therefore, must be a product of that material base. But what’s so extraordinary is this. If you talk to neuroscientists today, they’re the first people to say something like: ‘We don’t have a clue how you get from warm brain matter to this 3D movie that you and I are in right now. We don’t even have a beginning. We can’t even imagine that in principle.” It’s not like, “We have a model, and we just need to tinker with it for a few more decades.” It’s more like, “No, we don’t even have a beginning to that.”

 

Then, some of these scientists ‘flip’, what do you mean exactly by this term?

Most academics and intellectuals in general are trained in their education to think that materialism is the truth of things, that there is fundamentally matter, that the world is fundamentally material, and that all mind or consciousness is a kind of a temporary byproduct of material processes. A flip occurs when one of these trained intellectuals or professionals has some kind of extraordinary experience and “flips,” in the sense that they realize that consciousness or mind might actually be fundamental or primary in the material world. It is not that they’re now denying material reality. It’s rather that they’re now seeing the fundamental nature of consciousness or mind, and they no longer see it as just a byproduct of the material world. They understand that things are infinitely more complex and rich, and truly fantastic.

 

So ‘the flip’ then, is the result of an experience, rather than the result of intellectual thought?

I think the mistake that we’re making today and certainly in our academic culture is that we confuse consciousness with thinking. We confuse consciousness with cognition, to be more technical about it. These flip states have little, if anything, to do with thought. They’re not about thinking anything. They’re about the thinker. They’re about realizing that there’s a thinker behind all the thoughts.

 

This seems to go against the fundamentals of our scientific worldview, that takes rational thinking as its departure point… 

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. That’s usually translated as ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but it could just as well have meant for Descartes something like ‘I am conscious, therefore I am.’ If we identify consciousness with thinking, then, of course, when the brain deteriorates or dies and thought is no longer possible, consciousness cannot be possible. That is clearly where we’re at as a secular scientistic culture. We just (naively) equate consciousness with the brain, and we equate consciousness with thought. We assume, therefore, that when the brain and thought are gone, consciousness must be gone.

 

And you describe this materialistic assumption as a new form of belief…

Materialism simply replaced monotheism. But scientific beliefs can do things that religious beliefs couldn’t. You see, they’re much more effective on a technological level. But the problem with them is that, in order to work, they have to basically erase us: science can explain almost anything, except you or me. And so we’re left out of the picture, and then we’re told: ‘Well, you know, consciousness doesn’t really exist.’ Not exactly very convincing. I think what we did is that we confused technological success with philosophical truth. As I like to joke, we just assume the following logic: “We can build refrigerators, therefore materialism is true.” I know that doesn’t follow. That’s my point.

 

One ‘heavyweight’ category of scientists that you label ‘flipped’ were the early quantum physicists from Schrödinger to Bohm and Pauli. You describe how they all became interested in mystical literature, because it seemed to offer an explanatory non-dual metaphysics for the quantum world they observed. How serious should we take this link 100 years later, I mean nowadays ‘quantum mysticism’ is another word for ‘pseudoscience’…

OK, so not only did the early quantum physicists combine comparative mystical literature and quantum physics. They insisted the mystical literature was the best place to go to see what the effects of quantum reality are “up here,” in our world and experience. They saw this comparison almost instantly. Too many physicists today, I think, would say something historically ignorant, like: ‘Well, this comparison between mystical literature and quantum physics is just a countercultural fluke. You know, it was New Age hippies who did that.’ And I want to say, “Sorry, this is simply not true. You know, your own founders, people you still read and revere, they were all saying this back in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Just go read them. Stop the nonsense. And, oh, by the way, stop making fun of the New Age and hippies. They aren’t punching bags.”

 

But was this a private fascination for them, or did they publicly link quantum physics to the metaphysics of mystical literature?

They were public about this. Schrödinger wrote some wonderful things on how there’s only one mind, or One Mind. And he was reading Sufi and Hindu mystical literatures, through the available humanistic and historical scholarship, of course. He has this memorable line where, after a dear friend dies, and he’s really struggling over this, someone asks him whether animals have souls. And he replies in so many words: ‘Of course, animals don’t have souls. And neither do we. We’re all one mind. The light returns to the one light at death, and that’s it. The light does not and cannot die. It just returns to the light.’ So he had this whole metaphysical system in place. Or consider someone like Niels Bohr. He actually put the Chinese Daoist yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms. That’s how deep down the rabbit hole he had gone. He saw the cultural expression of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics in Chinese Daoism. It’s hard not to look at his coat of arms and think he’s a New Ager. [Laughs:] Oh, it’s Niels Bohr. It’s the guy who created the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

  

Isn’t there more cultural tension these days around relating quantum physics to metaphysical systems of non-duality? Watching for instance a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris, we hear Harris literally warning the audience that it’s dangerous to link quantum physics with religion or spirituality—suggesting that that is exactly what Chopra is doing.

So, first of all, I don’t think Deepak is offering anything particularly dogmatic. I think he’s trying to bring worlds together. And why not? As for Sam’s reply, I think this is how this desperately needed synthesis is resisted, frankly. It’s as if he were saying: ‘Only quantum physicists should talk about quantum mechanics.’ But why? That assumption seems to me to lead to cultural disasters, if not to open cultural schizophrenia. Now, of course, people who are going to talk about the implications of quantum mechanics are going to make mistakes about what quantum mechanics is. That’s OK. So correct them and help them get in on the conversation. But don’t tell us that we can’t have this conversation. We’re made of quantum processes, too, you know. If we can let that conversation happen, I think it will eventually lead to a future answer, or set of answers, and in all kinds of genres, including and especially artistic and science fiction ones. We need a new imagination. My own best bet is that future culture is not going to be a scientific culture in the materialist or secular sense. But it’s also not going to be a religious culture. It will be something we have not even imagined yet, much less enacted through our knowledge and technologies. And I think that’s what is so difficult for people to understand. People like myself are not offering a solution here. We’re offering a conversation. And we don’t know where it’s going to go. I think Sam Harris is doing the same, by the way. When he talks about meditation, Buddhism, and the nature of consciousness in an effort to push us all beyond where we are at the moment with our science or religion, he is offering his own future synthesis of mind and matter.

 

You do describe the directions though, the best metaphysical options we have for explaining consciousness. They range from panpsychism, the idea that all matter is ‘minded’, to idealism, the idea that there is one universal mind. In earlier interviews you mentioned that your personal position is somewhere in between these poles, called ‘dual aspect monism’, how would you define that? 

Dual aspect monism basically says that when you and I are talking, there’s an inside relating to an outside. I experience myself as essentially this twoness. There is something “inside” this body-brain relating to all these objects “out here” in three dimensional space. You’re on my internal screen, as it were. But, fundamentally, deep down, there is absolutely no distinction between my own subjectivity and this material world. They are ontologically monistic. It’s all one world. What actually splits this fundamental unity into two is this body brain. I’m the splitter. You’re the splitter. The body and the brain are what splits the one world into a mental and a material dimension, but deep down that world is both mental and material at the same time, or, if you prefer, it’s neither. However you want to talk about it, it’s not matter as traditionally conceived (but neither is it mind as traditionally conceived. So am I materialist? Yes, or No. Am I an idealist? Yes, or No. Do you see my paradoxical point? It’s only paradoxical on this level. We keep thinking in binarisms or dualisms, which simply are not so on a deeper level.

 

This might all sound theoretical and abstract, but what’s so fascinating about your notion of ‘The Flip’ is that actually many normal people experience this one-ness, denied or ignored by materialism. Could you say something about the amount of ‘real life stories’ that you have encountered?

I get emails every single week now, multiple emails. I can’t even respond to them any longer. And they’re often long. And they detail the most extraordinary things (ed. paranormal, mystical experiences) happening to people. Very often, they’ve never told anyone, but now they’re telling me, a complete stranger. They can’t tell anyone, of course, because nobody will listen to them. They’ll just be made fun of (you know, called “New Age” or a “hippie”). Often they can’t even tell their own spouses or partners. That’s the dumb culture I’m complaining about all the time.

Let me give you a simple example. In the last year, we’ve been through this terrible pandemic. We’re still in it. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people have been put on respirators and have gotten very close to dying. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have come back from those experiences and have reported all kinds of astonishing, strange experiences. And it all gets reduced today to something truly stupid like ‘covid mania’. You know, ‘it’s just a function of the drugs they were on.’ We never sit down and say, well, let’s listen to what they experienced and let’s consider whether that might be true. The rules of the public game do not allow us to go there. We just immediately reduce it to some kind of mania or some kind of drug effect.

 

But how then should we integrate the ‘flipped state’ into society, into our culture, into the problems we’re facing as humanity?

I was struggling with that while writing the book. Basically what I argue is that the only real way to integrate these flipped states in any truly sustainable way is through education. We have to change the way we educate children and young adults, and we have to stop assuming either the truth of these individual religious worldviews or the truth of the secular, materialistic worldview. We have to be more capacious and generous and imagine different future worlds. Because I don’t think we can rely on individuals to flip, I think we have to somehow integrate that flip into future forms of knowledge in our public culture, and then people will flip. But they won’t all flip. We have to understand and honor that, too.

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