I've been hogging the SPR library's copy of Irreducible Mind, having been too cheap to shell out the fifty-odd quid for it, and now they want it back. Woe. (Sorry if you're one of the people waiting for it.) I can't imagine being without it for long, though, so will doubtless end up buying it, and be glad to have it in my shelves. No question, this is one of the most important publishing events in its field for a long time.
Not, of course, that this will be instantly recognised by the people it is mainly aimed at - mainstream psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers. The book's uncompromising rejection of the reductionist models they take for granted will probably just baffle them, at least at first. I'd be curious to know what sort of reaction they have been giving it in their publications, but I guess it will be a slow burn. No matter; the case it makes is so complete and compelling it must surely sink in eventually.
The main authors are Edward F. Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, with contributions by Alan Gauld, Adam Crabtree, Bruce Greyson and Michael Grosso. The book has been out for a while so has had quite a bit of attention (Michael Prescott had a good look at the chapter on NDEs a while ago). But if you're not aware of it yet, it's an update of the ideas of Frederic Myers, one of the SPR's main founders, the first and arguably still the greatest theorist produced by psychical research.
Myers looked closely at unusual mental phenomena - automatic writing, hysteria, mediumship, dreams, hypnotism, genius and mystical experience, and the like - as well as the ostensibly paranormal phenomena collected by the SPR. He came to a view of the unconscious that contains different centres of consciousness, complete in themselves, but of which we are not aware, and which we often draw on, for instance as a source of creative inspiration. His big idea was the Subliminal Self, an ultimate 'I' that has roots in a transcendental environment of some sort, with which the conscious part of ourselves is reunited following the death of the body.
Myers's approach was in harmony with the thought of William James, who however did not long survive him. The field was then free for Freud and others to promote a quite different, pathologized view of the unconscious, as a sort of garbage dump of repressed anxieties, a source of tension and potentially of illness and disease. Subsequently the emergence of behaviourism effectively led to consciousness being abolished altogether as a topic for scientific consideration. Essentially Irreducible Mind builds on Myers's and James's pioneering ideas, reinforcing them with new evidence that has accumulated in the past century.
I'm used to thinking of psi as making the current physicalist paradigm untenable. What I hadn't properly appreciated is that there are many other kinds of mental phenomena that do the job just as well, without involving claims of 'spooky action at a distance' which many people find hard even to consider. In fact the book actually contains rather little from the paranormal canon, and it's interesting to see how the argument for an enlarged view of the mind-brain relationship can be largely made without it.
I was especially interested by Emily Williams Kelly's chapter on psychophysiological influence. This assembles data that shows mental ideas, images and conceptions having tangible effects on the organism. Numerous studies show that a person has an increased chance of dying shortly after suffering bereavement, for instance. There are also well documented cases of people being convinced for one reason or another they would die at a certain time, and then doing so, despite being in perfect health. Kelly also cites cases of people's hair going suddenly white from shock, of stigmata and marks on bodies corresponding to suggestion, of yogis buried underground whose hearts flatlined for days and came back to life shortly before being recovered.
The placebo gets attention too, with the growing recognition that mental states somehow trigger a healing mechanism. Kelly cites an extraordinary 1957 study, in which a patient close to death badgered his doctor to be included in a trial of a new medicine. Within three days his tumours were half their original size and after ten days he was discharged, continuing in good health for two months. But he became ill again after reading press reports that the drug might not be effective after all. His doctor, sensing what was going on, then persuaded him to try a 'new improved version of the drug', which in fact did not exist - he injected him with water. The patient recovered again, with results even more dramatic than before. But after two months he learned from the media that further studies had shown the drug to be quite worthless, and within days he was dead. (p.145).
Interestingly, the science and medical community sometimes resists such claims as fiercely as it does telepathy and psychokinesis. Take hypnosis: this was briefly used in the nineteenth century before the discovery of chloroform as an anaesthetic, and it worked. In one case it was used in an operation to remove a massive face tumour, which involved ripping open the patient's face and yanking the tumour through the eye until it burst - through all this, according to the surgeon the patient 'never moved, nor showed any signs of life, except an occasional indistinct moan' (p.189). Yet one doubter absurdly preferred to think that in such cases the patient, having formed a bond with the doctor, 'wants to please him, so bravely tries to inhibit signs of pain.'
Kelly points out that such resistance tends to disappear the moment scientists think they can explain it. Putting something into scientific language - hypothesizing a chain of events among various neural centres, for instance - provides a physicalist framework which superficially makes the claim less threatening. However she also points out that the explanations really don't amount to very much.
The essential problem we are left with is that such phenomena imply a causal direction hard to account for in mechanist terms. It's one thing to conceive of brain chemistry bringing about ideas and images in the mind. But it's something else again if mere ideas or images can set in train vastly complex chains of events within the body. How does a belief that one will overcome one's illness, or an instruction to make this happen, translate into the hugely specific biological steps required to bring that about?
It would be hard to exaggerate either the quality of this book or its importance. I'm struck by the lucidity of the text - as a layman I hardly ever found myself floundering - and an enormous amount of data and argument is deftly handled. Some of it was completely new to me: I had no idea that patients suffering from advanced dementia sometimes become quite lucid in the moments before dying, as is apparently often reported by hospital nurses, and I look forward to seeing published data about this, as it obviously carries important implications.
As well as being astonishingly erudite - the extent of the scientific literature it surveys is truly impressive - it's also a very bold book. It's encouraging to find such a serious and well-supported defence of non-physicalist positions that, baldly stated, inevitably invite derision from the mainstream, but with so much supporting evidence must surely start to be taken seriously. There's a lot here about the 'filter' theory of the brain proposed by James and Myers - and later also backed by, among others, C.D. Broad, Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley - which is irresistibly suggested by the action of psychedelics. And I can't recall ever in a science book, and certainly not a recent one, encountering such a clear and forthright argument in support of an essentially dualist view of mind-brain - again, if psychologists want to dismiss it out of hand it has to be asked, what is their explanation for all the evidence marshalled here to support it?
All of this will be immensely valuable to people like me who try to interest people in the claims of parapsychology. Evidence of telepathy and precognition, not to mention the more bizarre paranormal claims from mediumship, poltergeists and the like, are toxic to the conventional view of mind, but they are also hard to accept if you are not used to them. It will be a big help to be able to refer to a similarly enormous body of evidence that does not immediately require such a major emotional adjustment, but which at the end of the day points pretty much in the same direction.