Have you had a paranormal experience? If so, you’re not alone. Approximately 70 percent of respondents to recent surveys by the Gallup Organization, the National Science Foundation, Eastern Virginia Medical School and the University of Central Oklahoma, among many others, say they have had an experience that might be considered impossible.
A pure materialist might declare that all these people are deluded or are simply experiencing anomalous brain states that have produced a semblance of an altered reality. But therein lies the crux: What is reality? And is consciousness equivalent to neural activity in the brain, or is it something else?
“I think this subject is close to a lot of people’s hearts,” said Jeffrey J. Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Religious Studies. “But we don’t talk about it.” That lack of discussion is why he wrote Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press, 2010). This fascinating and thought-provoking book is not about whether particular paranormal experiences are true or false. For Kripal, that’s not the pertinent question. Instead, the book is a contemplation on the intersection of consciousness and the material world, wherein the boundaries of both are breached to reveal a third or middle realm that appears to participate in both mind and matter, subject and object, at the same time. Call it a philosophy of mind based on the paradoxes of real-world paranormal experiences.
One might wonder why a professor of religious studies engages in research on paranormal phenomena given that the subject is taboo not only for most organized religions but also within the academe. For Kripal, it’s a logical extension of the research he did for his previous book, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2007), for which he interviewed many people who had these kinds of experiences or who had spent years studying them.
“I’m just doing what I was trained to do: studying people’s extreme religious experiences,” Kripal said. “People usually think that the study of religion is just about studying encounters with the sacred in the distant past, but people have these experiences every day, every hour, every minute all around us, and they’re often framed as the paranormal. That’s why the subtitle of the book is The Paranormal and the Sacred, because I think this is what the sacred looks like in our own era and our own culture.” The other element that fascinated him was that, while he has studied Christian and Hindu mysticism for 25 years, he’d never heard of any of the four authors whose work he covers in the book, even though their ideas are foundational for research into phenomena that have a strong mystical connotation.
“It was strange and somehow troubling that I’d never heard of these four gifted authors because that means the field has essentially excluded this whole area and focused on more traditional or orthodox religious experiences that are certainly legitimate enough but that are safely distant in both time and space,” he said, “Why would we only study fantastic beings descending from the sky in 1st-century Palestine or 16th-century Italy but not here and now? If we really want to understand people’s religious experiences, our own experiences, as wild and unbelievable as they appear, are just as important as those of any other time and place. Indeed, in many ways, they are more important, since our access to them is much more direct, nuanced and reliable.”
Kripal calls the general topic of the paranormal “the impossible” in part because most intellectuals consider these events to be literally impossible. But he stresses that what is possible and impossible is relative to cultures and time periods. “The history of science is filled with impossible things becoming possible, and the history of religion is very similar,” he said. “‘Impossible’ things happen to people all the time. I don’t call the experiences impossible; I call these writers ‘authors of the impossible.’ They’re authoring — and authorizing — these impossibilities in the sense that they’re making them possible — making them understandable — and they’re giving people tools to take them seriously.”
Our culture, he says, has two principal venues in which the paranormal is publicly discussed. One is what he calls the Larry King Live or the History Channel stream, where a believer or experiencer faces a skeptic, and they cancel each other out like matter and antimatter. The second is the route taken by science fiction, fantasy and comic superheroes. “There’s this huge hole between those two that I’m trying to plug into and say these experiences aren’t pure fantasies, although they’re the source of a lot of fantasies,” Kripal said. “I’m trying to suggest that they can’t be accepted or dismissed in the way the believer or the skeptic do, that they contain both trick and truth, and that it would serve us well to think more paradoxically about them. Basically, I’m encouraging a form of thought that is both– and, not either–or.”
Kripal breaks “the impossible” into two major categories. One contains the spiritual and mystical — which is what his earlier books are about — and the other the psychical, occult and paranormal. The first category has deep roots in the history of religion, while the other is linked to 19th- and early 20th-century science. “Researchers into these phenomena use scientific or parascientific language to talk about them,” he said. “They reject, for example, the term ‘supernatural’ because they think these events are natural, but we just don’t have models to explain them. Every culture employs the scientific understanding of the world of its place and time, whether it’s accurate or not, and modern people who express their experiences of the sacred in paranormal terms are doing the same thing. They’re not doing science, though. They’re doing religion with scientific terms and categories.”
The problem with that, he said, is that paranormal experiences are not necessarily amenable to scientific analysis. “I’m using the tools of the humanities to look at a set of extreme religious experiences that have been looked at with other methods, but not very successfully,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to be heard as being antiscience. I want to be heard saying that the humanities have something really important and really interesting to offer here. Paranormal experiences can be understood as ‘living texts’ or uncanny stories that are about meaning.”
Kripal said that when the experiments of laboratory parapsychologists are successful, they produce a very tiny statistical anomaly. The reason the anomaly is small is precisely because it’s measured in a laboratory. “Whatever paranormal events are,” he said, “they did not evolve so that a bored sophomore can look at playing cards and try to send an abstract shape to another bored sophomore. They are about and mean something else.”
Instead, paranormal experiences validate the viewpoint that reality is neither subjective nor objective, but both. “These sorts of experiences are clearly subjective in that the brain is doing whatever it’s doing and culture is doing whatever it’s doing”, he said. “But things are happening out there in the physical environment that are not reducible to brain states, and we have no way of explaining them with our present materialist or subjectivist models.”
The four authors whose work Kripal covers, however, have made an attempt to put together a way of looking at reality that is both subjective and objective. They are Frederic W. H. Myers, a 19th-century Cambridge classicist who helped found the Society for Psychical Research; Charles Fort, the early 20th-century collector of odd phenomena whose name gave us the word Fortean; Jacques Vallée, a scientist who had a hand in developing the first computer-based map of Mars and creating ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, and who worked on Project Blue Book, the U.S. government investigation of UFO data; and Bertrand Méheust, a sociologist and philosopher who has written about the study of psychical and paranormal phenomena, mostly among elite intellectuals in 19th-century Europe.
“Frankly, there’s a lot of nonsense and bad scholarship in the study of the paranormal,” Kripal said. “A lot of paranormal phenomena are fraudulent, and often people misconstrue or over-read whatever it is they’re experiencing. But there also is ground for the true believer, because that true believer has been through a dramatic religious or quasi-religious experience that he or she knows happened.”
Kripal doesn’t think that either of those two viewpoints are ultimately persuasive for someone who’s neither an experiencer nor a materialist. The middle space between the two is much more creative, allowing agreement that the person really had an experience but also agreeing that the content of that experience functions in a symbolic or metaphorical way. They are not literally true, but they also are not false. Instead, they signal or signify something that we are having a difficult time reading because we are not yet deep or subtle enough readers. “That’s the method of the study of religion,” he said. “We don’t believe, but we don’t dismiss. These four authors impressed me the most as sitting in that space in sophisticated and subtle ways.”
The Filter Thesis
One of the main problems with literal acceptance, Kripal said, is that our experiences and perceptions of the world are always filtered. “I think that 99.9 percent of cognitive and sensory function is brain,” he said, “but I don’t think that consciousness can be completely reduced to brain function, although that goes against the orthodox neuroscientific view.”
The “filter thesis,” which goes back to Myers and his associates, suggests that consciousness is filtered or transmitted by the brain, not produced by it, and that consciousness is not confined by space or time. This is why people can have a precognitive dream or a telepathic cognition. Consciousness, then, is not restricted to the brain but is essentially everywhere. When people have these types of paranormal cognitions, whatever is pouring through the intuitive, symbol-making right brain is getting immediately translated by the left brain, with its linguistic, cultural and linear processing. “To take that translation as what’s truly out there is a serious error,” Kripal said, “but it’s also an error to say there’s nothing out there. Méheust has spent decades with this stuff, and he does think there’s an X out there, but the older he gets, the more he’s convinced that the filter through which it passes is really thick. You get into all sorts of trouble by accepting what the filter tells you because that which is filtered is never exactly the same thing as reality. Consciousness is essentially my X that is ‘out there’ — and ‘in here’ — but that always appears to me as something else, as something filtered, as something encultured and languaged.”
The hypothesis under which Kripal works basically says that paranormal phenomena are, in essence, living symbols produced by a superconsciousness of which we are a part in order to assist us in creating our own story selves. And for him, the self is finally a story — that is, a string of memories put together to form a narrative or personal novel, as it were. “Paranormal events are not arranged through cause but work like texts through metaphor and meaning,” he said. “They suggest that the world isn’t just made of numbers, but it’s also made of words and stories.”
The idea that the paranormal assists in “writing us” is difficult for most people to accept. “Being religious and being written often are more or less the same thing,” Kripal said. “Many people want their beliefs written for them, and they don’t want to question them or the world.” Eventually, though, there enters the realization that we’re being written by our religions and cultures, and that idea introduces the truly radical notion of what Kripal calls “authorization,” where we choose to participate in the writing. “A paranormal event suggests that we are engaging in that process over generations and centuries, and that we are writing ourselves in some profound way,” he said. “Not individually, though. This is where I think the New Age makes a mistake. I don’t think individuals can create their own universe. But cultures can. Disciplines can. And centuries can.”
Filming “the Impossible”
All this is pretty heady stuff for a book, so it might seem to be a paranormal experience in itself that Authors of the Impossible is being made into a film. After the publication of Esalen, Kripal’s daughter kept coming home from a friend’s house and saying her friend’s father was wondering when the book was coming out in paperback. Kripal got together with the friend’s father, Scott Jones, owner of XL Films, a company specializing in corporate films. Jones wanted to do a project that was a little more interesting than a corporate film, but Kripal had to tell him that Esalen had already been optioned by a film company in Los Angeles. Then Kripal told him about Authors of the Impossible, which was still in manuscript form at the time.
“When I read Authors of the Impossible, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a film based on it,” Jones said. “The book is so powerful and ultimately convincing because of its broad historical perspective and Jeff’s subtle, sophisticated, and paradoxical way of thinking about such things.”
Jones immediately optioned the book. “What ultimately sealed the deal for me was that the sheer weight of the stories as they pile up — together with the striking patterns that they begin to form — makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that something very real and very strange is going on,” he said. “If Jeff is even partially correct, he’s pointing toward much more than just a new way of thinking. He’s pointing toward a new way of being.”
“We’re all really excited,” Kripal said. “We’re trying to make a high-quality documentary, not just another bad TV episode or cheesy film on the paranormal. Most of all, we want to do something provocative, meaningful, helpful and, above all, beautiful.”
The film is in the early stages of production, so it has yet to take final form. Or forms. “It could be anything from a television program to a feature film,” Kripal said. “We’re looking at various distribution channels. We’re making something to hit the mainstream, but in the end, we’ll probably also edit a version for classroom use.”
Along with the film, there is another work in progress for Kripal: a follow-up volume titled The Secret Life of Superpowers. In it, he examines authors and artists in popular culture who have written explicitly about their own paranormal experiences as the secret of their creativity and art. “They use these experiences to create art and fantasy that has punch because it resonates with the impossible experiences of readers and viewers,” Kripal said. “Science-fiction and fantasy are so popular because they reflect our own unusual experiences.”
Kripal doesn’t believe that there is an adequate theory for the paranormal, but he thinks that if we begin taking very seriously people who have had these sorts of extreme experiences without buying into the mythical and cultural frames in which they are expressed, we have a really good start. “If we approach these events as profoundly meaningful stories — essentially as mystical experiences coded in sci-fi language,” he said, “we’re well down the road to understanding them and making the impossible possible.”
This article originally appeared in Rice Magazine (#7, 2010).