The Professor, the Abductee, and the Aliens

What do you get when you partner a chaired professor of religious studies at a prestigious university with a popular writer in order to study the paranormal? According to The Houston Chronicle (3/6/16), Jeffrey Kripal, who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair of Religious Studies at Rice University, has teamed with Whitley Strieber, author of such books as The Wolfen and Communion.

The Wolfen tells of deadly wolf-like creatures that terrorize a modern city. Communion is a story of alien abductions. One of these two is presented as a work of nonfiction. Kripal and Strieber have combined their talents to produce a new work, presumably also a work of nonfiction, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, published by Penguin Random House. To answer the question asked in the first sentence: What you get is nonsense on steroids.

I met Jeffrey Kripal some years ago. Sharp guy. No kook. He showed his perspicacity by inviting me to give a paper at a colloquium (ahem). I was impressed by his office, which looked like it could have belonged to Sheldon Cooper. It was decked out with a most impressive collection of Marvel Comics superhero memorabilia. I certainly cannot fault him for that. My office has a large collection of dinosaurs, my 1964 Aurora Plastics Corporation Godzilla model, and a stuffed Marvin the Martian doll. I do not fault anyone for enjoying fantasies. I do fault them when they write books defending fantasies as real and castigating scientists and skeptics for looking at such claims with gimlet eye.

The book consists of Strieber’s first-person reports of encounters with the paranormal and Kripal’s academic analyses of those experiences. For instance, Strieber claims that he was taken from his Hudson Valley cabin in 1985 by a group of trolls, giant insects, and a deceased friend. Kripal bristles at the suggestion that such experiences are merely “anecdotal.” He says that empirical science is the wrong tool to use to assess such claims. Really, it is just looking in the wrong place. According to The Chronicle, he says that employing the methods of science to debunk claims of the paranormal is like declaring that zebras do not exist when you have only looked for them at the North Pole.

I have a better analogy. Suppose that the majority of visitors returning from the Polar Regions report only the usual arctic fauna—polar bears, walruses, seals, etc. However, some report having seen strange black-and-white striped horse-like creatures, but every scientific expedition sent to follow up such reported sightings fails to find the reported beasts. Further, suppose that there are known physiological conditions related to hypothermia and snow blindness that cause people to sometimes hallucinate tropical creatures in the arctic. For instance, there was the famous Norwegian Blue parrot sighted in remote northern fjords. In such a circumstance, what should we conclude—that there actually may well be zebras in the arctic despite the consistent failure to confirm them, or that the reports were more likely hallucinatory?

Hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations and other hallucinatory experiences by non-psychotic individuals are common and well documented in psychological literature. A recent popular report on the nature and frequency of such experiences is Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations. Sensory deprivation also causes hallucinations as night-flying pilots and long-distance truckers have discovered. The recently bereaved quite often have a hallucination of their lost loved ones. A friend of mind suffering from sleep deprivation and driving late at night on a lonely road reported seeing a “cartoon dog” running alongside her vehicle. When the brain is starved of sensory input, it makes up its own. In short, non-psychotic people have often believed that they were seeing strange things and have interpreted those experiences in various ways, depending on their beliefs. When people think that they have been abducted by trolls, giant insects, and dead friends, it is not at all biased or dismissive to suspect that it is a hallucinatory experience.

The real issue, says Kripal is the nature of consciousness. Here is Kripal as quoted in the Chronicle article:

“The standard, conventional view is that consciousness is brain process and nothing more. But there is another model you encounter in religious literature, and that says that the brain does not produce consciousness; it reduces it. It [the brain] acts like a radio receiver. Consciousness is cosmic, and the body and mind are set up to filter it.”

This same sort of idea (I will not dignify it by calling it a “model”) shows up in the writings of Christian apologist (and self-described “Christian cage fighter”) Dinesh D’Souza. In his book The Soul Fallacy (Prometheus, 2015), Rutgers University cognitive scientist Julien Musolino quotes D’Souza as asking how we can be sure that …”the brain is a manufacturing plant for the mind and not merely a gateway or transmission belt” (p. 172). Apparently, D’Souza also thinks that the brain might be a receptor for a cosmic soul signal (Musolino, p. 172).

I’m curious. If the brain is a radio receiver of the signal from the Cosmic Consciousness Network (CCN), then why aren’t we all picking up the same broadcast? As Musolino puts it:

“If thirty million Americans can tune in to watch the Super Bowl, what would prevent thirty million brains from receiving the same signal or one brain from receiving thirty million signals? And how exactly do soul signals get connected to the right brains (p. 173)?”

Other questions abound: Does one’s entire consciousness emanate from CCN? Does it broadcast your toothaches or feelings of constipation? Could we tune the brain as we tune a radio so that it gets a broadcast we like better (fewer toothaches and more spontaneous happy feelings, say)? Is that what opiates and recreational drugs do? Why don’t you get poorer consciousness reception when you go through a tunnel, or even in bad weather like satellite TV? Is the consciousness signal carried on a wave? If so, does the strength of the signal vary with the inverse square of the distance from the broadcast point? Where is the broadcast from? Heaven? Could we build artificial consciousness detectors? Maybe the CIA could use one to tune in on what Vladimir Putin is thinking. Why not? Do nonhuman animals also get consciousness signals, but with a smaller range of channels? Is a dog’s consciousness therefore more like basic cable while ours has HBO, Cinemax, and all the other premium channels? Do clairvoyants and telepaths get even more channels?

At this point Kripal and D’Souza could mount a high horse and decry the note of levity and ridicule I have allegedly introduced into a supposedly serious discussion. Not at all. If these questions sound ridiculous, it is not because they are inappropriate questions but because of the oddness (to say the least) of the hypothesis. Given that hypothesis, these are perfectly legitimate and reasonable questions. They are questions that cry out for answers if the hypothesis is accepted. Well, in that case, the reply might be, rude questions can also be asked about the lacunae in the materialists’ account of mind. Materialist accounts of mind still cannot explain everything. Tu quoque! Nyah Nyah!

It is important to distinguish between questions not yet answered and those that, in principle, cannot be answered. It is hard to see that the above questions directed at the “broadcast hypothesis” can ever be answered, or, what is the same thing, it seems that any answer would be arbitrary and ad hoc. What questions do materialist accounts of mind face that are not only unanswered but unanswerable? What about the “hard problem.” The so-called hard problem is often posed as a set of questions: Why should consciousness arise from any set of physical processes, however complex? Will it not always be a mystery how the phenomenal and qualitative aspects of consciousness arise from the firing of neurons? As William Lyons put it (Matters of the Mind, Routledge, 2001, p. 194), “…there do not seem to be any fundamental laws of physics or chemistry that shed light on how subjectivity and phenomenal qualities of consciousness arise out of physics. Or, to put it another way, you cannot extract subjectivity out of a heap of micro objectivity.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry cannot (fully) explain why certain operations of neural machinery constitute, say, a feeling of remorse or a perception of yellow. Neither, however, can such laws (fully) explain why certain operations of vocal machinery constitute, say, the singing of “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly. To explain the latter you not only have to describe the physical machinery and its operations, you also have to adduce the fact that such operations are the physical realization of something (non-mysteriously) nonphysical—an aria composed by Giacomo Puccini. Puccini’s aria is not a physical thing; it is an abstract pattern that can be physically realized in indefinitely many ways: It can be sung, hummed, played on a piano, played by a whole orchestra, or recorded by etchings in vinyl or the tiny bumps on a CD track. Whether a given physical state is a realization of that pattern is dependent on the laws of physics—as, of course, is every physical thing—but is not fully determined by those laws. It does not fully “arise out of physics” as Lyons puts it. Part of the determination of the event is by the abstract pattern, not physical law.

What applies to “un bel di vedremo,” would also apply to Beyoncé’s latest song about her butt, or any number of other familiar performances, like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance.” If there is nothing fundamentally and irremediably mysterious about many happenings that cannot be fully explained in terms of the basic laws of physics and chemistry, then why, in principle, should the hard problem be so hard? Proponents of the hard problem answer by offering their intuitions. Such intuitions have precisely their face value. Indeed, it might be wise to recall Daniel Dennett’s salutary warnings about “intuition pumps.” At the least, I think that we should put worries about the hard problem on hold until we have solved the “easy problem,” i.e. we know in detail just what the physical brain is doing, at every level, when we have particular forms of consciousness. If and when we solve this “easy” problem, we should then ask ourselves how hard the hard problem looks. At that point our intuitions might have changed.

Kripal also takes mandatory swipes at “debunkers” and “scientific materialism”:

“I make a distinction between skeptics and debunkers…Skepticism has a noble history going back to ancient Greece. Skeptics are skeptical of everything. Scientific materialism is not skeptical of scientific material[ism]. It assumes it. It’s ideology…Scientific materialism can explain everything but us. It cannot explain consciousness.”

Too bad that big questions cannot be settled by confident assertion.

If, as Kripal admits, “scientific materialism” can explain everything else, how can he be so confident that it cannot explain consciousness? Is this some form of the gambler’s fallacy? “Yeah, this horse has won every race up to now, but I am going to bet against him in this race because he is due for a loss.” Is it “ideology” to back the horse that has won every—every—race up to now?

Kripal concludes that experiences such as Strieber’s are not really about trolls and giant insects:

“What dead loved ones who sometimes show up in these alien abduction events suggest to me…Is that these events aren’t about space ships and invasions. This is what we call ‘religion.’ This is about the soul. This is about death. This is about immortality.”

I really hope that Kripal is wrong about saying that “alien abduction” experiences are “religion.” If they are, then I am afraid that he has made things easy not just for debunkers of abduction scenarios, but for debunkers of religion.