Signs of a growing interest in a post-materialist worldview are on the rise among philosophers. Alan Lightman, for example, has been on the Internet , expressing two things at odds with each other, the first his commitment to scientific materialism, the second his admission that he can’t quite explain consciousness in terms of materialist assumptions. He’s not alone with this admission; even the most committed materialists are forced to admit, as the late Jerry Fodor did, that nobody has even a clue to how to reduce consciousness to anything physical.
Lightman seems to assume without question that consciousness must or should be explained physically, but in effect admits it seems impossible. What never seems to occur to him is a possibility that William James suggested: the brain does not create consciousness but transmits it, just as my radio does not create the music I hear from it, but transmits it from an external source. This is what the Dalai Lama said to Lightman, that consciousness is an independent reality, a fundamental factor in nature. This is as logically coherent as the reductive assumption, but is only part of the key to the post-materialist worldview.
The main part of the ‘key’ is empirical: namely, data that comes under the heading of parapsychology. Lightman never once mentions the existence of a vast literature that demonstrates in numerous ways the primacy, power and creativity of mind over matter. In short, vital empirical data that enriches and empowers the idea of a worldview in which consciousness is a primary factor. It seems, however, that many of us in the academic world shy away from talk about the paranormal, magic, and all sorts of things that mock our intellectual timidity.
There are practical reasons one should avoid this vast realm of intriguing anomalies. Job, livelihood, status in one’s professional milieu may be at stake. For a minor example, Oxford University Press gave me a contract for my book: The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation. My editor and all referees were positive about the book. So I wrote it. A while after submission, I received a mysterious email in which a nameless “philosopher” told me I could not conclude in my book that the saint actually levitated. An absurd demand: I wrote the book precisely to make the point that the evidence for levitation was overwhelming. I refused to make any changes and was forced to find another publisher. Mine was a minor kick in my face.
As a matter of history, signs of commitment to what we now call the ‘paranormal’ could get you into trouble. Socrates was put to death, in part because he consorted with kaina daimonia, strange or new spirits. So much for Greek democracy. The English imprisoned Joan of Arc and burnt her alive because she possessed powers ascribed to the Devil. Joan was inspired by voices that enabled her to lead an army of men with historic effect. Thousands of so-called ‘witches’ were tortured and burned alive during the European “witch-craze” of the 17th century, also, according to A.N. Whitehead, the century of scientific genius. Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-founder with Charles Darwin of the modern theory of natural selection, was also a brilliant investigator of psychospiritual phenomena, and wrote a classic study, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (1887/1955), in which he responds to the negative arguments of Hume, Lecky, and others.. This part of his career, central to his life and achievements, is ignored by historians. One of the most brilliant logicians and mathematicians, Augustus de Morgan, wrote with his wife an early classic, Matter into Spirit, but disguised his identity as the author of the book in fear of the irrational backlash. In fact, he and his wife were pioneers of a new science. I could trot out many more examples of this mistreatment of honest scholars.
So I understand how some academics might be cautious about appearing too sympathetic to anything that threatens the doctrine of materialism. The situation is strange—a world in the grip of an evolving pandemic, a mounting risk of nuclear war, and a near inevitable climate Armageddon. It is a time also accompanied by changing values and overdue reckonings with regard to race, gender, and sexual identity. For survival reasons, it seems a time when a transformation of worldview is needed. An expansion that brings us together and enables us to relate to the natural world in less destructive ways. What seems in fact to be needed is an expansion of empathy and imagination.
As far as academics and their fear of the paranormal, I say, Courage! Big parts of our mental world are opening up in America. A few examples. The government has in effect confessed to covering up the truth about UFOs and UAPs. Books on the benefits of cannabis are now available in my supermarket and psychedelic research is back in the limelight while housewives and retired academics are microdosing magic mushrooms. Animal consciousness is now a growing field of astonishing research. And so on.
So, I repeat, do your homework, if you want to get a handle on the data that renders materialism totally inadequate. Acquaint yourself with the literature. To help, I will cite two anthologies, edited by Edward Kelly et alia: Irreducible Mind : Toward a Psychology For The 21st Century (2007) and Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (2015) Alan Lightman (and other honest skeptics) will find two things in these books that should advance their understanding of the issues involved. The first and crucial is to clarify the nature of the mind-body problem, and the second is to do the homework and acquaint oneself with the empirical data. I mean data that clearly exhibit the causal potency of our mental life.