Visions of the Impossible



The greatest taboo among serious intellectuals of the century just behind us, in fact, proved to be none of the \”transgressions\” itemized by postmodern thinkers: It was, rather, the heresy of challenging a materialist worldview.
—Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (2002)

Consider two impossible tales.

Scene 1. Mark Twain was famous for mocking every orthodoxy and convention, including, it turns out, the conventions of space and time. As he relates the events in his diaries, Twain and his brother Henry were working on the riverboat Pennsylvania in June 1858. While they were in port in St. Louis, the writer had a dream:

In the morning, when I awoke I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real. In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the centre.

Twain awoke, got dressed, and prepared to go view the casket. He was walking to the house where he thought the casket lay before he realized \”that there was nothing real about this—it was only a dream.\”

Alas, it was not. A few weeks later, Henry was badly burned in a boiler explosion and then accidentally killed when some young doctors gave him an overdose of opium for the pain. Normally the dead were buried in a simple pine coffin, but some women had raised $60 to put Henry in a metal one. Twain explains what happened next:

When I came back and entered the dead-room Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. He had borrowed it without my knowledge during our last sojourn in St. Louis; and I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went—and I think I missed one detail; but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the center of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.

Who would not be permanently marked, at once inspired and haunted, by such a series of events? Who of us, if this were our dream and our brother, could honestly dismiss it as a series of coincidences? Twain could not. He was obsessed with such moments in his life, of which there were many. In 1878 he described some of them in an essay and even theorized how they worked. But he could not bring himself to publish it, as he feared \”the public would treat the thing as a joke whereas I was in earnest.\” He offered the essay to the North American Review on the condition that it be published anonymously. The magazine refused to do so. Finally, Twain published the article in Harper’s, in two installments: \”Mental Telegraphy: A Manuscript With a History\” (1891) and \”Mental Telegraphy Again\” (1895).

Mental telegraphy. The technological metaphor points to Twain’s conviction that such events were connected to the acts of reading and writing. Indeed, he suspected that whatever processes this mental telegraphy involved had some relationship to the sources of his literary powers. The \”manuscript with a history\” of the first essay’s title refers to a detailed plotline for a story about some Nevada silver mines that one day came blazing into his mind. Twain came to believe that he had received this idea from a friend 3,000 miles away through mental telegraphy.

Scene 2.
The American forensic pathologist Janis Amatuzio’s book Beyond Knowing is filled with extraordinary stories of impossible things that routinely happen around death. Here is one such tale.

It began one night when Amatuzio encountered a very troubled hospital chaplain, who asked her if she knew how they had found the body of a young man recently killed in a car accident. Amatuzio replied that her records showed that the Coon Rapids Police Department had recovered the body in a frozen creek bed at 4:45 a.m.

\”No,\” the man replied. \”Do you know how they really found him?\” The chaplain then explained how he had spoken with the dead man’s wife, who related a vivid dream she’d had that night of her husband standing next to her bed, apologizing and explaining that he had been in a car accident, and that his car was in a ditch where it could not be seen from the road. She awoke immediately, at 4:20, and called the police to tell them that her husband had been in a car accident not far from their home, and that his car was in a ravine that could not be seen from the road. They recovered the body 20 minutes later.

Most scholars have no idea what to do with such poignant, powerful stories, other than to dismiss them with lazy words like \”anecdote\” or \”coincidence.\” Or perhaps we could study their textual histories and show that they are not as straightforward as they seem. That would be a relief.

As with the heads of Hercules’ Lernaean Hydra, however, with every story we so decapitate, three more, or three thousand more, appear. We are swimming in a sea of such stories, if only we could recognize our situation. We do not know how many such stories there might be, much less what they might mean. We do not know because we have never really tried to find out. Why, after all, would we study something that does not exist? \”Water?\” the fish asks. \”What’s water?\”

It is worse than that, though. It is not just that we are told that such things, which happen all the time, cannot happen at all. It is that there are subtle, and not so subtle, punishments in place for those who take such events seriously—that is, for those who let the Hydra stand. Note that both stories feature a kind of professional fear. Twain struggled for years with whether to own his experiences in print. Even the hospital chaplain was shaken to the core by what he encountered. Clearly these events violate something basic about our worldview and our established ways of knowing. That is why Amatuzio titled her book Beyond Knowing.

It is not just our fault, though. There are fundamental ambiguities inherent in the experiences themselves, ambiguities that make it difficult to put and keep these experiences on our academic tables. To start with, these things are not things. Nor are they replicable or measurable. And then there is the key role that the human imagination plays in these visions.

I have recounted two fairly straightforward, empirical cases, but the records are filled with more difficult, that is, more symbolic or outright mythical accounts whose strangeness would boggle even the most generous minds. Finally, the recounting of even the empirical cases is often changed in small ways (missing an important detail or supplying a nonexistent one), which suggests that these visions are accurate anomalous cognitions that have been \”filled in\” with imagined details—mixtures of trick and truth.

The early-Victorian researchers had it right: They called dreams like the two with which I began \”veridical hallucinations,\” or hallucinations corresponding to real events.

We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today. We tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through, at least in these extreme cases. Somehow Twain’s dreaming imagination knew that his brother would be dead in a few weeks—it even knew what kind of bouquet would sit on his brother’s breathless chest. Similarly, the wife’s dream-vision knew that her husband had just been killed and where his body lay. In those events, words like \”imagined\” and \”real,\” \”inside\” and \”outside,\” \”subject\” and \”object,\” \”mental\” and \”material\” cease to have much meaning. And yet such words name the most basic structures of our knowing.

Or not knowing.

Both stories are about a kind of traumatic transcendence, a visionary warping of space and time effected by the gravity of intense human suffering. Even these most basic \”categories of the understanding,\” as Immanuel Kant called them, surrender their reign before the needs of the human heart. Much as Kant argued, these appear to be our own cognitive filters, not some perfect reflection of what is really there, or, dare I add, of what we are really capable.

There was more to Kant’s fundamental insight than philosophical precision. On August 10, 1763, the philosopher marveled (in a private letter) at the clairvoyant abilities of the Swedish scientist-seer Emanuel Swedenborg, who, in 1756, related to some dinner guests, in Gothenburg, the precise details of a fire advancing in a southern suburb of Stockholm, 50 miles away. From 6 to 8 in the evening, he reported on the fire’s advance until it was finally put out, just three doors from his own house. In the next few days, Swedenborg’s account was investigated and confirmed by the political authorities after the news spread and the governor got involved.

But here is the catch: Kant may have clearly accepted in private the empirical truth of such an extraordinary event, but he mocked and made fun of Swedenborg in public. There is that professional fear again.

Debunkers misunderstand such stories as the soon-to-be-dead brother, the appearance of the fatal-car-accident victim, and the advancing fire—all of which happened under extreme circumstances—when they ask, with a sneer, why all psychics do not get rich on the stock market, or why robust psychic phenomena cannot be made to appear in the controlled laboratory.

Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories, the answer to why robust events like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and the Stockholm fire do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. No one is in danger or dying. Your neighborhood is not on fire. The professional debunker’s insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile laboratory is little more than a mark of his own ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question. To play by those rules is like trying to study the stars at midday. It is like going to the North Pole to study those legendary beasts called zebras. No doubt just anecdotes.

Context matters. Methods that rely on or favor extreme conditions are employed in science all the time to discover and demonstrate knowledge. As Aldous Huxley pointed out long ago in his own defense of \”mystical\” experiences suggestive of spirit or soul, we have no reason to deduce that water is composed of two gases glued together by invisible forces. We know this only by exposing water to extreme conditions, by traumatizing it, and then by detecting and measuring the gases with technology that no ordinary person possesses or understands. The situation is eerily analogous with impossible scenarios like those of Twain, the wife, and the Swedish seer. They are generally available only in traumatic situations, when the human being is being \”boiled\” in illness, stroke, coma, danger, or near-death.

Allow me to update Huxley. Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason to suppose that matter is not material, that it is made up of bizarre forms of energy that violate, very much like spirit, all of our normal notions of space, time, and causality. Yet when we subject matter to certain drastic conditions, like the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, Switzerland, then we can see that matter is not material at all. But—and this is the key—we can get to that point only through a great deal of physical violence, a violence so extreme and so precise that it cost billions of dollars and decades of preparation to inflict and then analyze it.

Because we’ve invested our energy, time, and money in particle physics, we are finding out all sorts of impossible things. But we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind—materialist and mechanistic ones. While it is true that some brain research has gone beyond assuming that \”mind equals brain\” and that the psyche works like, or is, a computer, we are still afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world, and that we possess fantastic capacities that we have allowed ourselves to imagine only in science fiction, fantasy literature, and comic books.

Take my own discipline, the history of religions, which is filled with countless tales that make my two opening stories look ordinary. We are told endlessly, and quite correctly, that religious experience of every sort is \”constructed\” by local languages, ritual practices, and institutions. We thus insist on \”contextualizing\” every experience and event, which means locking them down tight to a particular physical point in space-time and so not allowing them to inform how we understand other obviously similar experiences and events at other points of space-time.

For example, individuals have been seeing dead loved ones (or loved ones about to die at a distance) for millennia, which suggests strongly that experiences like those of Twain, the widowed wife, and Swedenborg are very much a part of our world and not simply constructed by culture. Such comparisons are deeply suspect these days, mostly because they end up suggesting something at work in history that is not strictly materialist—like a mind that knows what is going to happen before it happens, or a departed soul that appears to his sleeping wife.

In the same vein, we are told, again quite correctly, that religion is about power and politics, or economics, or patriarchy, or empire and colonial oppression, or psychological projection, or the denial of death, or—now the latest—cognitive templates, evolutionary adaptation, and computerlike synapses. And ultimately, of course, what religion is really about is nothing, since we are nothing but meaningless, statistically organized matter bouncing around in empty, dead space.

In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing \”religious\” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.

Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the \”death of the subject\” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top—in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

Humanists have paid a heavy price for their shrinking act. We are more or less ignored now by both the general public and our colleagues in the natural sciences, whose disciplines, of course, make no sense at all outside of universal observations, and who often work from bold cosmic visions, wildly counterintuitive models (think ghostlike multiverses and teleporting particles), and evolutionary spans of time that make our \”histories\” look insignificant and boring by comparison.

I am aware, of course, that there are signs of life in the humanities. I am thinking in particular of the development of \”big history\” in historiography and of the new materialisms, vitalisms, and panpsychisms of contemporary philosophy, as evident in Thomas Nagel’s recent well-publicized doubts about the adequacy of neo-Darwinian materialism, expressed in his book Mind and Cosmos.

These are all positive signs, but I wonder if they are bold enough. A new materialism is, after all, still materialism, and the big histories remain allergic to any hint that human beings may be more than historical beings. In short, these new moves still keep the game-changing evidence off the table.

I also wonder if there are good reasons for ignoring the humanities. Why, after all, should anyone listen to the truth claims of a set of disciplines whose central arguments often boil down to the claim that the only truth is that there is no truth; that all efforts toward truth are nothing more than power grabs; and that all deep conversation across cultural and temporal boundaries is essentially illusory—that we are all, in effect, locked into our local language games, condemned to watching shadows in our heads, which are going nowhere and mean nothing?

I am chained to that brain floor like everyone else. I am making no certain metaphysical claims here, although I am pointing out that our present ones have erased huge swaths of the human experience and, by so doing, have impoverished our thinking. I have not, like Plato’s hero, escaped from the cave of the senses and seen the sun of mind outside. But over the past three decades, I have read and spoken with many who have described some hint or gleam of exactly such a shining intellect.

I suggest a way out of our present impasse: We should put these extreme narratives, these impossible stories, in the middle of our academic table. I would also like to make a wager, here and now, that once we put these currently rejected forms of knowledge on our academic table, things that were once impossible to imagine will soon become possible not only to imagine but also to think, theorize, and even test. I am betting, in other words, that we actually need these so-called impossible things to come up with better answers to our most pressing questions, including the biggest question of all: the nature of consciousness.

Toward this same end, I propose that we reimagine the humanities as the study of consciousness coded in culture. I am not suggesting that we can study consciousness directly, or that any ego can ever know what consciousness is in itself. I understand that we can study consciousness only as it is reflected and refracted in cultural artifacts, like texts, art objects, languages, and social institutions, or, as the cognitive scientists have it, in cognition.

But I think it matters a great deal whether we are willing to imagine that consciousness might exist in its own right and may well be more than a function of brain matter or local historical and cultural processes. Even the admission of this possibility would be enough to bring the humanities back to consciousness and humanists back to the academic table as central and valued participants. The humanities would no longer be, as my Rice University colleague Timothy Morton puts it, \”candy sprinkles\” on the cake of scientism. Quite the contrary: Our texts, our narratives, and our methods of interpretation would function as guiding ideals, as pointers to where anyone interested in the nature of mind might go for answers.

After all, consciousness is the fundamental ground of all that we know or ever will know. It is the ground of all of the sciences, all of the arts, all of the social sciences, all of the humanities, indeed all human knowledge and experience. Moreover, as far as we can tell, this presence is sui generis. It is its own thing. We know of nothing else like it in the universe, and anything we might know later we will know only through this same consciousness. Many want to claim the exact opposite, that consciousness is not its own thing, is reducible to warm, wet tissue and brainhood. But no one has come close to showing how that might work. Probably because it doesn’t.

A broad historical perspective might help here. As scholars like the American literary critic Victoria Nelson, in The Secret Life of Puppets, or the Dutch historian Wouter Hanegraaff, in Esotericism and the Academy, have demonstrated, Western intellectual history has seen immense swings back and forth between Platonism and Aristotelianism: between a philosophy rooted in mystical and visionary experience (a Platonism that helped produce, among other things, the conviction that profound mathematical and philosophical truths are \”remembered\” or \”discovered\” and not \”constructed\”) and an empirical rationalism that bases its knowledge on sense data and linear logic. With the rise of science, rational empiricism has been dominant for the past few centuries.

The solution is not simply to swing back to some kind of pure Platonism, but to effect a synthesis of the two modes of knowing. The sciences are a big help here, for two reasons. First, because they can challenge humanists to abandon their absolute constructivism, and second, because the sciences have utterly failed to explain consciousness.

We now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind, an Aristotelian one and a Platonic one, both of which fit the neuroscientific data well enough: the reigning production model (mind equals brain), and the much older but now suppressed transmission or filter model (mind is experienced through or mediated, shaped, reduced, or translated by brain but exists in its own right \”outside\” the skull cavity).

Whether we can eventually address both the hard problem of consciousness and its elaborate coding in human culture hinges on whether we can integrate the Aristotelian and Platonic models, resisting an either-or solution. So far we have not been able to resist. The rules of what gets counted in academe are defined by the dominance of the production model and the suppression of the transmission model. In short, today Plato may admire Aristotle, but Aristotle sneers at Plato.

That is probably not the end of the story, though. Consider the musings of one contemporary neuroscientist, David Eagleman, who teaches and does research at the Baylor College of Medicine. At the end of his book Incognito, Eagleman turns to the question of the soul and expresses reservations about promissory materialism, the commonly heard claim that, although we do not yet know how to explain mind through material processes, we eventually will. Indeed, everything will eventually be explained in a materialist framework, because everything is only matter.

Maybe, Eagleman concludes. Or maybe not. It is extremely unlikely that we just happen to be living at the moment when all things will soon be explained. Previous generations claimed the same, and they were all quite wrong. The likelier scenario, he observes, is that the more we learn about the brain and consciousness, the stranger, not simpler, things will get. Here is where one of his thought experiments comes in. A parable:

Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. … Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. … You come to a clear conclusion: The voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. At some point, a young person asks you how some simple loops of electrical signals can engender music and conversations, and you admit that you don’t know—but you insist that your science is about to crack that problem at any moment.

Assuming that you are truly isolated, what you do not know is pretty much everything that you need to know: radio waves, electromagnetism, distant cities, radio stations, and modern civilization—everything outside the radio box. You would not have the capacity to even imagine such things. And if you could, Eagleman says, \”you have no technology to demonstrate the existence of the waves, and everyone justifiably points out that the onus is on you to convince them.\” You could convince almost no one, and you yourself would probably reject the existence of such mysterious, spiritlike waves. You would become a \”radio materialist.\” Eagleman points out at the end of his book: \”I’m not asserting that the brain is like a radio, but I am pointing out that it could be true. There is nothing in our current science that rules this out.\”

William James, Henri Bergson, and Aldous Huxley all argued the same long before Eagleman. Bergson even used the same radio analogy. This is where the historian of religions—this one, anyway—steps in. There are, after all, countless other clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly \”switches,\” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.

Although it relies on an imperfect technological metaphor, the beauty of the radio or transmission model is that it is symmetrical, intellectually generous, and—above all—capable of demonstrating what we actually see in the historical data, when we really look. It is symmetrical and generous in the sense that it affirms everything we have been doing for the past century or so in the humanities and the sciences (all that Aristotelian stuff about the body and the brain), and it puts back on the table much of the evidence that we have taken off as impossible or nonexistent (all that Platonic stuff about the human spirit). In this same generous, symmetrical spirit, it is not that materialism is wrong. It is that it is half-right.

Such a radio model certainly has no problem understanding how Mark Twain could have known about his brother’s imminent funeral, why a wife could know about her husband’s distant car wreck, or why a Swedish scientist could track a fire 50 miles away. The mind can know things distant in space and time because it is not limited to space or time. Mind is not \”in\” the radio or brain box. The payoff here is immense: The impossible suddenly becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes predictable.

What we have been doing for the past few centuries is studying the construction and workings of the physical radio. But the radio was built for the radio signal (and vice versa). How can we understand the one without the other? It is time to come to terms with both. It is time to invite Plato back to the table—to restore the humanities to consciousness. The rest will follow.

Author Bio: Jeffrey J. Kripal is a professor of religious studies at Rice University. He is the author, most recently (with Ata Anzali, Andrea R. Jain, and Erin Prophet), of the textbook Comparing Religions: Coming to Terms (Wiley, 2014).