Rational Mysticism ?
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Book Review: Kelly & Kelly et al, Irreducible Mind

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.


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Robert: i feel vaguely guilty reading such quality commentary for free. I feel like I should use PayPal to buy you a pint.

Terrific, well thought out post.

Glad you finally got the chance to read this vast and illuminating text. Here in the US the price was over $80, but included a CD-ROM of Myers' landmark book "Human Personality". Whenever I encounter skeptics and cognitve neuroscience advocates, I ask if they've read this book. No surprise to discover they haven't. The bibliography alone is almost worth the price of the volume. and marshalls a superabundance of texts and online resources to support their collective argument. I might suggest in addition that, if we begin from the assumption of Mind preceeding matter, we can then argue that the mentations which affect the physical (placebo effect, stigmata, etc.) can do so because matter IS Mind, not a self-creating solipsism but a semi-individual subset of a much larger consciousness. In any case, the resistance to such a massive gathering of argument and evidence presents a great challenge to the keepers of the Scientific Reductionism flame. As history well attests, those with fossilised theoretical viewpoints incompatible with veridical observations and experimental findings will find themselves as ossified remnants of the obsolete past.

Thanks for the feedback, good to know that Paranormalia has such discerning readers!

Very good post Robert thanks

Keith Augustine has posed a challenge to the dualists he says the reason he cannot accept survival is because how a person can survive death given that so many characteristics essential to one's personality are known to be brain dependent: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/g...ml#personality

here's the link

To Keith Augustine by way of Leo, I would ask this: why do you assume that personal characteristics AREN'T continued as developmental consequences of the life experience? Why do you assume dualism? Religions and mystic traditions are human cultural artifacts, not proscriptions. Why not Idealism, or Neutral Monism or, better yet, why not develop the ontological underpinnings based on our experimental and experiential findings? Rhetorically, I wonder why so few people are comfortable with ambiguity.

Kevin let's not forget people who believe in religion aren't the only ones who believe in dualism for one I don't believe in any religions but I believe in dualism. Dualism fits the facts in view about survival of bodily death evidence, psi, and other phenomena. Idealism and neutral monism make everything out to be one reality whichs appears not to be true.

Excellent review, Robert. Mohrhoff also has a good review available in PDF at AntiMatters. I'm yet to read the book, but I'm happy to see these ideas presented in a scholarly fashion.

There's much more going on here than meets the eye, and this publication may help open some eyes to that fact.

I'd be very interested to find resources discussing end-of-life lucidity in people with dementia, as I had a personal experience with that when taking care of my grandmother at the end of her life.

Regarding end-of-life lucidity, Carol, Michael Grosso (one of the contributors to Irreducible Mind) mentions the phenomena in a brief piece available at his website, Hamlet Was Right. He writes:

"By the way, it didn’t happen to my Mom, but some people with Alzheimer’s, or dementia, do recover their memories, and they light up with their old personalities—just before they die. So the soul spark isn’t necessarily destroyed by the sick brain. The wire may be impaired but someone is still at the other end of the line.

"I think we owe it to ourselves to keep an open mind about these unexplained recoveries—and they are only the tip of an iceberg of puzzling stories."


Grosso does provide a contact link at his main page - it might be worth your time to ask if he might direct you to other sources dealing with the topic.

Mind affects body. This is not something that is disputed by physicalists -- I decide to move my hand and it moves; I think about a juicy steak and a complex series of bodily responses take place. To a physicalist though, this can be viewed from two levels of abstraction (actually many more, but lets keep it simple): what was just described was the psychological level -- the level at which the abstraction of mind is meaningful. Mind, however, is seen by physicalists as being an abstraction emerging from a lower level which is mostly (though not exclusively) tied to the physical brain. In that view the brain has physical effectors, such as the motor nerves, that influence the body.

As you describe it -- ignoring the parapsychological and psychical research parts of the book -- the argument of this book is that it can be demonstrated that the mind effects the body in subtle and specific ways that we do not understand. That lack in our understanding makes many scientists uncomfortable and they respond by ignoring the issue or with outright denial.

I don't have any disagreement with any of this. My problem comes with the next apparent step in the reasoning:

We do not understand what physical mechanisms could allow the brain to have such specific and subtle influences on the body THEREFORE there are no physical mechanisms mediating this influence THEREFORE the mind is not a manifestation of the physical brain, THEREFORE mind is extra-physical.

Whether or not the conclusion is correct, the argument is fallacious. All our ignorance grants us is the opportunity to hypothesize that such a direct effect of mind on body, unmediated by the brain, could be operating. It provides no evidence that it is. You would have to demonstrate that no physical mechanism (a tall order if you allow for unknown extensions to currently understood physical mechanisms) *could* allow such a brain->body influence.

Neither dualism nor idealism actually improves the matter. Dualism replaces the unknown physical mechanisms by which brain influences body with the unknown mechanism by which mind/spirit influences matter in any way. Idealism replaces it with the unknown mechanism by which the physical or the appearance of the physical emerges from the mental/spiritual. That these problems are pervasive to these philosophies, and that therefore these subtle influences do not create additional difficulties for them, does not mean that they solve the problem. They only add it to the list of unsolved issues for them.

I think that the degree to which mind arises from the physical is an open issue. I think that the phenomena studied by parapsychology and psychical research is still the area where evidence of something truly beyond the physical should be looked for by those who are looking for such evidence. There at least we have evidence of phenomena that we not only do not understand but that are beyond the range of currently understood physical mechanisms. There is still a step from "currently understood physical mechanisms" to "any physical mechanism", but that is one step less than required when starting from the placebo effect, etc.

-- Topher

Topher makes the mistake of assuming the physical came first, with the mental arising later ("emergent property"="magic"). There is no particular or compelling reason to adhere to this assumption, and doing so creates the physicality problem he relates. But if we change the assumption and follow the quantum mechanical requirement of an observing mind (not a machine, which has already been eliminated in experiment) to account for the collapse of the state vector and, thus, make manifest the physical world, the problem disappears[see von Neumann, Wigner, Bauer, et.al.].Mind is inseparable from matter, and thus seeking "physical mechanisms" will always be a fruitless effort. You write that mind "is seen by physicalists as an ABSTRACTION EMERGING (my emphasis) from a lower level which is...tied to the physical brain". This is a baseless assumption without evidential support, and makes for the faulty argument developed from it.Cognitive neuroscience has used the phrase "emergent property" to cover their inability to account for consciousness. To substitute the word "magic" would offer the same explanatory power. The content of your various postings on this subject lead me to conclude that you may not have read the book reviewed here, or any of the researches referred to in its text and bibliography. Given the proven successes of quantum theory in regards to its predictions and observational inferences, I would offer that the less problematic assumption on which to base our attempts to understand the many questions we are engaged with is to assume the primacy of Mind.

Nope, I haven't read the book, nor did I say -- or mean to imply -- that I had. I was commenting on the argument as presented in this summary. I am, however, fairly familiar with some of the research that, according to the summary, form its basis.

"Topher makes the mistake of assuming the physical came first, with the mental arising later"

I made no such assumption. I was describing the philosophical position of physicalism which makes an assumption similar to what you stated (although the terms "first" and "later" isn't the point). I looked at all three general philosophical positions (physicalism, idealism, and dualism) and pointed out that the evidence discussed cannot be used as evidence for any of the three of them -- I was more detailed about physicalism because the claim I was countering was that this data was to some greater or lesser extent, incompatible with it, and therefore evidence against it. That just is not true, in my opinion.

Physicalism does not reject mental phenomena, it simply says that "mind" is a way of looking at some physical phenomena -- a useful and real one.

'("emergent property"="magic")'

If you believe that then you really don't understand what the term "emergent property" means. Almost everything we can observe is *provably* an "emergent property" of things we cannot observe directly -- the notable exception being consciousness, where the proof is lacking (which doesn't mean that such a proof won't someday be found, nor does it mean that it will). Idealism, which gives primacy to mind, in fact, postulates that the physical is an "emergent" set of properties of mind.

An example. Chess consists of a set of rules about the ways that pieces can move and interact and the goals that players strive for. If you talk to expert chess players, they speak of things like "a pin", the "opening game", "piece development", "exchanges", etc., none of which are found in the rules. They are emergent properties of the game rules. They are higher level patterns (addressing relationships between pieces, sequences of moves, and secondary goals) that EMERGE from the level that the rules address (which is limited to individual pieces, single moves, and the primary goals of checkmate and stalemate). Do you claim that either these things are meaningless terms or that they appear in the game by "magic". I don't -- rather they represent a useful order and pattern that are implicit in the rules, and become explicit only within a wider view of the game.

"But if we change the assumption and follow the quantum mechanical requirement of an observing mind (not a machine, which has already been eliminated in experiment) to account for the collapse of the state vector and, thus, make manifest the physical world, the problem disappears"

Sorry, I rather strongly disagree. There are still some physicists who feel that a special role for consciousness makes for a more elegant description of QM, and they might be right. But there is no strong experimental evidence that I know of for this position. In fact there is now a great deal of evidence that requires some elaboration from these theories for them to remain viable (essentially, that there is not one, but two kinds of "collapse" or levels of "collapse" one of which requires consciousness but otherwise acts exactly the same).

Von Neuman famously gave a rather cogent argument for consciousness as the only plausible agent of "collapse" but this relied on a thought experiment, rather than real data. His argument was, essentially, that it was difficult to see where to draw the line short of consciousness. Experiment, however, has caught up with his brilliant argument, however. The line has been found. The answer, experimentally verified, is that it really doesn't take much to cause "collapse", just enough matter that is not organized coherently interacting with the system of interest -- nothing as complex as a "machine" is required. A major area of research now is how to organize significantly complex structures so that they do *not* "collapse" spontaneously almost instantly. This is a requirement for "quantum computing" and its difficulty is the major barrier to having practical QM computing systems.

"Cognitive neuroscience has used the phrase "emergent property" to cover their inability to account for consciousness. To substitute the word "magic" would offer the same explanatory power."

When a cognitive neuroscientist claims that "consciouness" *is* an emergent property then they are making a baseless claim, since the specific ways that it might emerge from the neurological structures have not been demonstrated. When they hypothesize that it *might* be an emergent property, then I see no problem with that.

"Given the proven successes of quantum theory in regards to its predictions and observational inferences, I would offer that the less problematic assumption on which to base our attempts to understand the many questions we are engaged with is to assume the primacy of Mind."

But none of those predictions and observational inferences require the "primacy of Mind" to collapse the wave function or for anything else. Arguments to the contrary are out of date (contrary to what you might think -- I found this rather disappointing). In fact, the growing consensus among foundational theoretical physicists is that the "collapse postulate" of the Copenhagen Interpretations is unnecessary and that "collapse" itself is a consequence of a restricted viewpoint (in other words, that it is an emergent property which comes about because we are *within* the system -- the opposite of the Copenhagen Interpretation that postulates that "we" are outside of it).

In case I still haven't made myself clear, I am not arguing for or against physicalism, idealism or dualism. I am only arguing that much of the evidence that purports to be inconsistent with physicalism is not. Neither QM nor placebo effects are inconsistent with physicalism. There certainly *are* phenomena that have not been proven to be consistent with physicalism. Most important from my view is psi which does seem to be inconsistent -- rather strongly so -- with our current understanding of physical law. Whether that is resolved by putting it outside of physical law or by expanding it is an issue I've been pursing fairly actively now for about 30 years.

By the way, the first direct test of the hypothesis that consciousness is necessary to collapse the wave function came from a disagreement on the issue between the two physicists/parapsychologists Evan Harris Walker and Ed May. The resulting paper, published in 1988, came out clearly on the side of collapse occurring before conscious observation.

It may be found here:



Tony M: If Robert deserves a pint (as he surely does) then what do I deserve for my 31 page review of Kelly et al?
Here: http://tinyurl.com/6af5mu

A bottle of whiskey. Splendid article

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