Is Progress Possible?
Written by Professor Lance Butler.
What would ‘progress’ be in our spiritual thinking? We turn quite readily to the past, for instance to Plato, to English, German and Spanish mystics who lived as far back as the Middle Ages. We appeal to the teaching of the Buddha without a qualm and we read T.S. Eliot. But is backwards the only way to look? Might there be some useful thinking to be done if we peered into the future?
When modern thinking about spiritual matters began, essentially once post-religious thinking became possible, there was much excitement among those who wished to investigate anomalous or spiritual evidence. The history of this was told by Arthur Conan Doyle in his History of Spiritualism, and it runs from the Fox sisters in the 1840s, through the popularity of Victorian séances, to William James, to the founding of Societies for Psychical Research in the UK and the USA, to the founding of Spiritualism and its hey-day around the two World Wars, and then, after Doyle, to the start of ‘parapsychological research’ in the 1950s. Since then a great deal has happened. For instance: the beginning of NDE investigations in 1975, the work on End-of-Life phenomena in the late twentieth century, the founding of departments of parapsychology in many universities in the 1980s, twenty-first century Consciousness Studies, and so on. And that alone encourages me to wonder what might happen next.
The answer from mainstream science when this history started (and until recently) was clear: material explanations would as usual be found, in the future, for any apparently ‘spiritual’ evidence. These explanations would conform to the standard view, that is they would be reducible to physics, chemistry and biology. But, strangely, the other side of the argument has not gone away. Indeed, and this is a very important point, the case for a ‘spiritual’ explanation has got stronger. The Hospice Movement for instance, which enabled people to talk more freely about dying than they had done in other settings, started in 1967. NDEs got a huge boost with the introduction of modern resuscitation techniques in cardiac wards in 1968. Since then the evidence for the survival of consciousness beyond death has, I repeat, got a lot stronger, not weaker. The promissory materialism that is the blank cheque offered by science when it claims that it will find a material answer one day, is beginning to look a bit thin.
Where might we look for progress then? Raymond Moody, godfather of the NDE, has shifted his attention to Shared-Death Experiences which, of course, are not susceptible to dismissal on the grounds that the dying brain releases chemicals which can explain the florid phenomena of the NDE; this is because the relative or nurse or doctor who has the SDE is not dying or drugged and is usually in normal health. Raymond now says that a majority of the new cases presented to him are SDEs.
So that is one newer avenue. And elsewhere more and better research throws up new evidence that mainstream science finds harder and harder to dismiss. In biology for example there are, metaphorically and literally, the children of Rupert Sheldrake, that is to say his son Merlin who can be seen as representative of the many new views of the interconnectedness of all nature and its relationship with consciousness. And in physics the conundrums of Quantum Mechanics don’t look like being resolved any time soon by ordinary thinking.
And, at last, it is at the level of philosophy that we are seeing progress that may lead us to a slightly more generous position in which the material and the spiritual can find their appropriate places. For Panpsychism and Idealism are making inroads and I read article after article in which people like Christophe Koch re-think the priority between the two sides of the matter-mind divide. It really is beginning to look as if we are soon going to have to give pride of place to mind, not to the elusive, old-fashioned things called ‘matter.’
Further, in this forward-looking and exciting new vision, more progress seems highly likely to come at the philosophical level. Consciousness is here to stay, not just as the famous ‘hard problem’ but perhaps now as a ‘soft solution’ to our debates with mainstream science. ‘They’, the materialists, cannot avoid consciousness – it’s the only thing we are sure of after all – and it looks as if consciousness much more widely present in the universe than we thought, perhaps present in all matter. ‘We’, even those of us who are not philosophers, can sit on the sidelines and watch this revolution unfold.
If you would like to see these developments in action you should try Iain McGilchrist’s stunning new book The Matter with Things and see how much progress we have made and how much more we can still make. There is a hint in his subtitle: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World.
And, of course, as we all know if we stop for a second, all of this is based on experience. Consciousness is experience – the words are more or less synonymous. And our experiences, which are undeniably and completely our own, are leading us more and more frequently to see the spiritual side of things. So not only in the public or academic arena will progress be made, but also in our own individual minds and hearts as we find that we are mindfully connected to the universe and that the universe is better described as spiritual than as a lump of inert matter charged up by such energies as we happen to be able to measure.