Every now and then a book comes along that you just want everybody to read. Readers of my previous reviews of Jeffrey Kripal’s books will know I’m a fan of his writing and thinking, and in The Flip he’s crystallised his ideas into a vision that he purposely presents in a punchier way than usual – just 200 pages – in order to give it as wide an appeal as he can. And he deserves to be heard.
Kripal, professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University - and chair of the board of trustees of the Esalen Institute, that Californian crucible of alternative ideas - is a rarity: an academic, prominent in his field, who accepts the reality of the paranormal even in its most extreme forms (witness his co-writing a book with Whitley Strieber). The Flip presents his case for taking the paranormal and anomalous phenomena seriously, both in the sense of accepting that impossible things really do happen and that they are - or should be - fundamental to our understanding of reality and what it is to be human: without that acceptance we’ll never get to the bottom of either. It sets a serious challenge to sceptics from the diehard debunker to the casually dismissive, while in its exploration of the meaning of the paranormal it gives those of us who already ‘believe’ much to think on, as well as showing those who seldom give the subject a second thought why they should.
As always, Kripal’s writing is compelling – by turns optimistic, despairing, passionate, humble, deadly serious, witty, but never apologetic – with effortlessly vivid turns of phrase that make him enticingly quotable.
The flip of the title is the change, the ‘epiphany of mind’, an individual undergoes when they come to accept, usually through a personal experience or encounter, that the paranormal is for real: a conversion, which as Kripal notes with his usual pleasure in language, comes from the Latin ‘to turn around’ – so a flip!
He also sees the paranormal as having played an important role in human history through its influence on religion, including mystical and religious visionary experiences in his definition and arguing that all the major religions are based on paranormal events, such as Moses’ burning bush, being ‘humanly constructed responses to some earlier flips, not absolute truths to literalize, “believe,” and worship.’
In this book, Kripal concentrates on the flips of scientists, medical professionals, writers and academics: among others the abduction experience of Nobel Prizewinning chemist Kary Mullis; the spontaneous telepathy with his sister during a moment of crisis that impelled psychiatrist Hans Berger into the research that led him to invent the EEG; the Near-Death Experiences of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander and philosopher – and (still) committed atheist – A.J. Ayer; even, satisfyingly, an apparent sign from his bride’s deceased grandfather on their wedding day that stopped Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer in his tracks.
The focus on ‘professional intellectuals’ is intended to ‘shake the reader from the easy notion that such completely inexplicable events happen only to the naïve or to those who do not know their science,’ adding, ‘This assumption needs to be called out for what it is: utter and complete nonsense.’
However, although scathing about the positivism and materialism that reigns not just in science but throughout academia, Kripal aims to show that such experiences aren’t incompatible with current scientific and medical knowledge: ‘The general materialistic framework of the sciences at the moment is not wrong. It is simply half-right.’ He aims to present a third way, one between the usual stark choice of religion or science.
Kripal’s exploration of the meaning of flipping events (if you see what I mean) naturally leads him to the relationship between consciousness and matter, which equally naturally entails a trot through the ‘flipped science’ of quantum theory – our current understanding of matter – and its ever-weirder manifestations such as entanglement: ‘Modern science, and particularly quantum mechanics, has rendered every past public conception of the real, every past conventional religious worldview fundamentally inadequate, if not more than a little silly.’ He makes much of science’s complete failure to explain consciousness in terms of materialism and mechanism, the ‘most banal models of mind’.
He sees signs of hope, though, in a ‘quiet renaissance or invisible revolution’ on the part of philosophers – and computer scientists such as Federico Faggin, inventor of the microprocessor (the first Intel) – that includes the revival of panpsychism (the idea that all matter, down to the humblest particle, is to some degree conscious) and its variants such as the ‘quantum mind’ theory of Alexander Wendt; Kripal points up the similarities between these theories and the literature of mysticism.
Another key theme is a defence of the humanities, including Kripal’s own field of comparative religion, and a plea for them to be taken as seriously (and funded as well) as the sciences, although he’s critical of the humanities, too, for side-lining the paranormal and spiritual. He sees his approach, his third way, as a means of bringing the apparently opposing sides together, arguing that the sciences need the humanities just as much as the humanities need the sciences.
For Kripal, it’s all leading to a ‘cosmic humanism’, which he defines as ‘deeply religious without being religious, a human expression of awe and beauty before a living conscious cosmos that transcends any and all human efforts to comprehend, much less explain, it.’
Such notions may sound more than a little New Age, but Kripal argues his points with academic rigour, and certainly doesn’t share that culture’s starry-eyed naivety, writing that ‘The flip does not equal moral and political enlightenment in our present liberal senses,’ and that ‘Individuals who have been flipped can be sexually abusive, physically violent, racist, discriminatory, and just plain mean.’
Much of his argument will be familiar to the Magonian-minded, although Kripal, as always, offers new perspectives and insights. He treads less familiar ground, though, in the last chapter, in which he looks at the social, ethical and political implications of embracing the paranormal, asking ‘if we really have been flipped, would we live differently?’
He sees current political thinking polarised between ‘a hyperrational materialism and historical ignorance on the Left, a hyperliteralism and ethnocentrism on the Right.’ While placing himself at the liberal end of the political spectrum, Kripal is conscious of its faults and, as ever seeking to bring opposites together, acknowledges that there’s a place for the conservative voice: ‘conservatism constitutes a precious critique of the kind of intellectual fads to which academics are particularly prone. Often, the liberal intellectual can only dissolve, can only deconstruct.
Implicitly arguing against today’s pervasive identity politics, he writes ‘we appear to have lost any sense of the cosmic human and have shrunk ourselves down to this or that miniscule religious, nationalist, secular, ethnic, or genetic ego.’ He sees his third way – his new real – as a way of mediating between conservatism and liberalism, which comes down to a ‘balancing of unity and diversity, sameness and difference.’
Ultimately The Flip is about an emerging new worldview, ‘a new real that is presently forming around the epiphany of mind as an irreducible dimension or substrate of the natural world, indeed of the entire cosmos, before and beyond the present scientific, ethnic, political, or religious story that one happens to find oneself (caught) in at the moment.’
Like Kripal’s other works, The Flip is important: stimulating, challenging, enlightening, and with a relevance not just across academia but for much of the modern world.
So what are you waiting for? Order it now… -- Clive Prince
- This book has now been re-issued as a paperback by Penguin, with the title The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters.