The progress of modern science has done much to enrich the material life of the relatively few. It has also done much to destroy the idea of the soul and any belief in hopeful transcendence for the many. The rise of modern science has in some ways been coeval with moral progress; for example, slavery is no longer official in America, but racism is hardly a dead issue. We may not burn witches anymore but it’s a fact that about 100 thousand runaway young women in America have been sold into sexual slavery. Along these lines much more could be said: clearly, the “scientific” expulsion of the soul has not improved the moral temper of modern times. There is, however, one branch of science with a special interest in the soul or (to use the Greek word) psyche.
Psychical research, as I understand it, is the practical and theoretical exploration of the outer limits of consciousness (PK, ESP, mystical states, etc.). A controversial subject in our materialist culture, it’s important for at least three reasons, and may, I believe, have bearing on the future of humanity.
First, psychical research radically alters the concept of ourselves—our sense of personal identity. For one thing, the outreach and boundaries of our minds cease to be clear. The effect is to expand the notion of mind beyond our bodies toward a notion of transpersonal mind. Freud and Jung pushed back those boundaries, adding the personal and the collective unconscious; psychical research explodes the limits of the personal and collective mind and points toward the existence of a greater mind at large. This expansion has implications for psychology, for anthropology, and for political philosophy.
Psychical research is the only discipline that tries to answer the question: Is there an afterlife? Are there reasons to believe I will survive the death of my body? On this question, much data is available for study: cases of mediumship; hauntings; apparitions; reincarnation memories, behaviors, and bodily marks; near-death experiences, and deathbed visions. To pretend this is unimportant is, in my view, a piece of self-deception.
Secondly, psychical research bears directly on issues of health and healing. From this research a new, post-materialist healthcare paradigm may emerge. Research on paranormal healing, the placebo effect, spontaneous cancer remission, documented cases of spiritual healing all point to a radical self-healing potential. With the current world crisis of healthcare in full stride, we need to think about learning how we ourselves can sustain our health, relying less and less on a ruthless profit-driven health-care system.
Third reason. Psychical research provides the basis for a new way to interpret the meaning of miracle claims, religious beliefs, and exotic mental states like inspiration, ecstasy, and possession. Psychical research has the potential to generate a theory of religion that would satisfy the ethos of science but also preserve the transcendent factor of the great creeds.
In order to achieve this creative synthesis of science, health, and the transcendent, each of the apparently conflicted parties needs to make some changes. Science needs to graduate from its attachment to physicalism, which is metaphysically provincial and politically repressive. Arguably, a purely physicalist mindset is perhaps one of the most dangerous things on Earth, given what it implies about the dominance of corporate capitalism, consumerism, and militarism as the answers to the human crisis. All three are interdependent and are direct existential byproducts of applied materialism.
No less essential to the flourishing of life on Earth: Religions need to graduate from the delusion that their way is the only way; this applies in large measure to the Abrahamic religions. The spirituality of the future will more likely evolve from an ancient Indian teaching of the Rig Veda, “Truth is one; but we call it by different names.” This insight puts us on the path of progress: of unity in pluralism, and of democracy in spiritual life.
Psychical research is a platform for philosophy, science and religion to renew themselves. It has implications for expanding our view of what it means to be a self or person; for constructing a new health-care paradigm; and for developing a new theory of religion, consistent with science and free from dehumanizing dogma.
As things stand, science, technology, politics and religion are on track to ruin life on Earth: by encroaching nuclear conflict, by failing to prevent climate catastrophe, and by endless wars of revolt against corrupt States and tyrannical Plutocracy.
A rebirth of consciousness is perhaps the only way to stave off the crash of civilization many see coming. A materialist science that reduces the human to the lowest material denominator will do little for the renaissance of consciousness the world needs. A new science of the psyche and its transformative potential might make a difference.