BLP Conversations: Jeffrey J. Kripal & John Horgan

Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.

In this conversation, Jeffrey J. Kripal, professor of religion at Rice University and author of The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, and John Horgan, science journalist and author of Mind-Body Problems, discuss the benefits and shortfalls of the scientific method, the nature of consciousness and knowledge, and how to remain spiritually optimistic. This conversation is part of the BLP Conversations series from Bellevue Literary Press, featuring dialogues that explore the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences.

John Horgan: First things first. The Flip is a terrific book, a passionate, erudite, wide-ranging critique of mainstream intellectual inquiry. Like you, I’ve been disturbed by science’s descent into rigid materialism, which downplays the importance of anything—even consciousness itself!—that cannot be explained in strictly physical terms. Hard-core materialists, ironically, mirror the dogmatism of the religious fundamentalists they deplore.

You argue eloquently for a Third Way, a mode of inquiry that rejects both scientific and religious fundamentalism and investigates anomalies such as telepathy and out-of-body experiences with an open mind. Your proposal dovetails with ideas I’ve explored in my writings, including my most recent book, Mind-Body Problems.

But I’d like to give you some pushback. Science, for all its faults, has been an extraordinarily powerful method for helping us overcome our innate narcissism and capacity for self-delusion, which for millennia kept us mired in superstition. I fear that if we relax our standards of evidence too much, and our commitment to objectivity, we might fall back into bad habits. We might succumb to what I call neo-geocentrism, the assumption that this universe was created for our benefit. Do you share this concern?

Jeffrey J. Kripal: Thank you, John. That means a great deal coming from you.

As for your pushback, well, I don’t feel pushed, or that we are going back here. I really do not want science to stop being science in the most rigorous sense. I agree completely that science has given us so much. We live in a different cosmos now. And we understand ourselves in radically different ways than we did, than we could, two hundred years ago. I also, frankly, do not want to live in a world without antibiotics or anesthesia. What I am asking is for scientists and science-minded intellectuals to begin questioning their assumptions—and I do think these are relatively unexamined assumptions—that the scientific method is the only way to know anything, and that anything that cannot be captured by its very rigorous (and so very excluding) methods must not be real. I am asking them to be more generous, more capacious, more imaginative, and more humble.

In the book, I explore rationalists committed to some form of conventional materialism who have experienced what I call a “flip,” a reversal of perspective born of an extreme, life-changing moment of realization or spiritual awakening. One of the things that surprised me about writing The Flip was how effortlessly “flipped” scientists, philosophers, and medical professionals integrated their new speculations about the fundamental nature of mind into their science or medicine. That is, they realized after their flip that they did not need their dogmatic materialism in the first place; that it is simply an interpretation, a powerful one admittedly, of what science gives us; and one that, oddly and disturbingly, eliminates us from the equation. Put a bit differently, they realized that they do not have to surrender an iota of their science, technology, or medicine once they see that materialism simply does not work as well as they thought it did. Nothing is lost, and something truly fantastic now shines on the horizon of thought.

So, yes, I share your concern. I don’t want us to “go back.” I want us to “go forward.”

JH: That’s inspiring, but let me once again press you on your vision of the future. The essential religious tenet, to my mind, is that we were meant to be here. God has a plan for us, and everything is going to turn out all right. Mystical visions, including ones you describe in your book, often confirm this upbeat intuition. But the major “flip” of my life—a psychedelic trip back in 1981—demolished any belief that I might have had in a divine plan. I felt—I knew—that not even God, if there is a God, knows where we’re headed. Science, similarly, implies that we came into existence through a series of accidents, and we could vanish in the same way. We could be destroyed by an asteroid, lethal virus, or our own foolishness, which is very much in evidence these days. I try to be optimistic, as a matter of principle, but it’s been hard lately. I guess the question I’m asking is, How optimistic are you?

JK: I remember well when I turned eighteen. It was 1980, and the draft was still active in the sense that every male had to register for it. I walked up to our postmaster in my little town and told him that I wanted to register as a conscientious objector. He had no idea what to do with me, or why I would want to do such a thing. I wanted to do such a thing because I considered war to be flatly and obviously immoral, and because I was so concerned about the nuclear arms race, which was at its height (or nadir) at that point in time. “Concerned” is a gross understatement. I really did not believe I would see forty. I grew up in the Midwest, which is lined with nuclear missile silos, and just a hundred or so miles from Omaha and SAC Air Force Base, which is where we were told, as kids, the President would go in case of a nuclear war. That was hardly reassuring. In short, I grew up in abject fear and reasonable existential doubt of the most basic sort. I still feel that. We could end civilization (all of it), literally melt our children, and destroy most of the ecosystem in a few minutes today, or tomorrow, by intention or accident. We have the means, many times over.

On the other end of the existential spectrum, you are right to point out that the history of religions is basically optimistic, that, in the Western theisms, the human being is made “in the image of God” or by God for some specific purpose and ultimate end. Similar forms of optimism exist in abundance in the indigenous and Asian religions. I am not a traditional theist in any sense, but I do carry this basic optimistic conviction to this day, even if it is grown many-layered through studying the different religions, none of which agree, of course, on this specific purpose or ultimate end. Still, that fundamental optimism is there.

I confess I swing rather unpredictably between these two opposite convictions—absolute existential pessimism and real spiritual optimism. I also confess that I generally opt for the latter, not because I know it is true (I do not), but because it is a better story to live in. It gets me up in the morning. For those of us who choose to think about the human condition and our rather baffling place in the cosmos, we all have to choose, on some level, whether the universe is “on our side” or not. Deep down, I think it is on our side, which does not mean that I think it is on my side, or your side, or any other individual’s side.

The Flip begins with “The Human Cosmos” and ends with “The Cosmic Human.” That was very intentional. I suppose, at the end of the day, I really do believe there is something fundamentally special about the human species, something cosmic and not local or even earthly (this is true even on a purely physical level—everything we are made of comes from the cosmos). For my part, I just find it outrageous, impossible really, that we exist at all, that anything exists. And I have read enough cosmology to know that this is a scientific mystery as much as it is a philosophical or religious one. And yet we are here. Something is on our side.

One last thought on my optimism: I live and work in the academic world, and more specifically in the humanities. We too often specialize in depressing people. And yet there is so much the humanities have to offer, if only we could temper our own pessimism and also speak more optimistically, more constructively. At the end of the day, the humanities really are all about the love of human beings, all of them.

As for your mystical experience back in 1981, well, I explain in The Flip how such mystical or paranormal experiences do not often support the religious worldview of the experiencer. Far from it, these events are in fact often profoundly destabilizing, deconstructive, and so also creative. They dissolve old worlds to birth new worlds. Just look how powerful your own flip was and what it led to in your own life and work! Look how it spurred you on to so many books, essays, and ideas. It may have been terrifying, but it was also incredibly productive, even inspiring. It helped create “John Horgan” for all of us.

The sacred, as scholars prefer to call the powerful presence that elicits religious feelings and experience in more or less hairless primates, has generally elicited two basic reactions from those same evolved primates: awe or fascination, and absolute terror. I don’t think we really know why some people encounter the sacred as awe or love, while others experience ego-dissolution or horror. I suspect both are human physiological or emotional response to a presence that is fundamental and not reducible to these relative human responses.

JH: I share your suspicion. My experiences, whether blissful or scary, have humbled me. They leave me with the conviction that all our knowledge, in the end, cannot capture reality, whatever that is; it cannot capture us. In an essay on your website you write, “Of this, I am certain: we are not who we think we are. At all.” Yes, that’s the theme of Mind-Body Problems. All our theologies and theories, our self-conceptions—we are children of God, immortal souls, bundles of selfish genes, software programs—are radically insufficient.

We yearn for certainty, for a final answer, but no one, not the most enlightened sage or brilliant scientist, not Socrates or Buddha, Freud or Einstein, has achieved it, and no one ever will. The day may come when we think we know ourselves, we share a common vision of who we really are, and we construct a utopia based on that vision. We will exult in our triumph, but that will actually be a defeat, a dystopia, the end of the great human adventure, the end of our self-discovery and self-creation. Our self-doubt is essential to our freedom.

JK: This is one of, maybe the major theme of your books, isn’t it? That The Answer is finally unattainable; that we are simply not capable of knowing such a capital-T Truth; and, not only that, but any individual or community that thinks it has The Answer will inevitably become authoritarian, if not dangerous.

I cheered through your books, and I could not agree more. I would only add that there are two types of communities that really scare me here: conservative religious ones and scientistic ones. Both can easily become forms of fundamentalism, as I explain in the book, and each ironically strengthens the other. It is time we set down both forms of certainty and move on.

We will never really begin to understand the cosmos, scientifically or otherwise, until we understand ourselves, for every form of scientific knowledge, every mathematical equation is, at the end of the day, a human form of knowledge. There is the mystery, yes, no doubt finally unknowable, but that can become the most profound kind of knowing of all.

I mean that there is a kind of direct first-person knowing that is not cognitive or theoretical (or mathematical) at all. If we can shake ourselves from our usual banalities, we might call this “consciousness” today. If all of the flips I look at in the book mean what they seem to mean, consciousness is not cognition. It is not about “thinking” or “sensing.” Consciousness is not personal. It is not John or Jeff or anyone else. Consciousness is a kind of weird presence that is human and not human at the same time. Consciousness is cosmic. And to the extent that we can express and experience this consciousness in fuller and fuller ways, so are we.


Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University and is the associate director of the Center for Theory and Research at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. He has previously taught at Harvard Divinity School and Westminster College and is the author of eight books, including The Flip.

John Horgan is a science journalist and director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. A former senior writer at Scientific American, he now writes the “Cross-Check” blog for the magazine. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. He is the author of five books, including Rational Mysticism and Mind-Body Problems.