INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Reposted from the author's blog at: nodimensions.com/blog/
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ANDY SMITH
A Review of Donald DeGracia's
Beyond the Physical
Andrew P. Smith
Why is DeGracia so intent on providing this alternative, and to nearly any scientist, completely unsupported view, of human behavior?
Donald DeGracia and I have several important interests and experiences in common: 1) we both have Ph.D.s and professional training in biochemistry; 2) we both have experimented with hallucinogenic drugs; 3) we have a long-time familiarity with occult teachings; and 4) we believe that a powerful tool for understanding many phenomena is by analogy to other phenomena that are at least in some respects better understood. All of these factors and influences play a key role in DeGracia’s book Beyond the Physical, so it was a given I would find the book interesting. Indeed, had the book existed about forty years ago, it would have undoubtedly been a major influence on my life. Discovering it now, some time after it was published, but a great deal more time after I first dropped out of the standard career path in science to pursue what I understood as higher consciousness, my enthusiasm for it is more restrained. In fact, I have a lot of criticisms of it, though I still think it is one of the better books on the occult I’m familiar with (my favorite remains P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous)
Occult teachings comprise a huge number of claims, observations, ideas and theories, but their essence is fairly simple: in addition to the physical or material world that we are all familiar with, and which is the subject of all conventional scientific investigations, there are several or more other worlds or planes of existence. Most people are unaware of these other worlds, which, according to DeGracia, are non-physical, but these other planes nonetheless can interact with, in fact interpenetrate, the physical world. Thus knowledge of the occult not only brings with it a much broader, more comprehensive view of existence than is possible through science, but may also allow us to appreciate our familiar world in new ways. Occult phenomena, in this view, should not be considered of interest only to a small group of curious seekers, but are potentially very relevant to everyone’s everyday existence. They constantly affect us, whether we are aware of it or not.
DeGracia wants to bridge the gap between the occult and science, creating what he calls a “hybrid scientific occultism” that will, he believes, marry the strengths and specialties of each into something far more comprehensive and useful than either alone. As should be evident from my opening description, he has a fairly unusual set of skills and experiences that make him more qualified than most for this undertaking. He seems about as capable as anyone to unify these two forms of knowledge, if in fact they can be unified. But that question is problematical, and the starting point for my criticisms.
The major problem most scientists have with the occult, of course, is that there is no way to verify most of its claims. Scientists study the physical world—indeed, generally believe there is no other—so any knowledge of phenomena that are, according to DeGracia, non-physical, is bound to be met with extreme skepticism by most of the scientific community. When they listen to descriptions of astral projections, out of body experiences, precognition, psychic action at a distance, and the like, they tend to roll their eyes. Even more open-minded observers, who don’t necessarily dismiss the possibility of such phenomena, are likely to point out that if one hasn’t experienced them oneself, there is no way to prove their existence to others.
One way DeGracia attempts to counter this problem is by arguing that some occult phenomena can be and in fact have been supported by observations made quite independently by scientists. As I noted earlier, most occult teachings hold that the non-physical planes of existence interact with the physical world we are all familiar with. The existence of these relationships, in principle, may give individuals the capability of not simply observing non-physical phenomena, but also observing physical ones in ways more powerfully than are available to the normal person. In other words, the claim is being made that occult powers allow one to observe physical phenomena that are ordinarily accessible only through the use of highly sophisticated scientific technology. If the occultist can demonstrate that he can see the same thing that the scientist, aided by this technology, sees, this could provide a powerful validation of the occult claims.
DeGracia provides several examples which he believes illustrate that occult observations are in fact confirmed by science. The problem with most of his examples, however, is that occultists simply verify existing scientific observations, rather than provide predictions of new ones. This leaves them vulnerable to the charge that they are—let’s be blunt here—cheating; that they provide the right answers because they already know what the answers are, or could be.
I will discuss just two of DeGracia’s cases here. First, there is the Seth material of Jane Roberts. Roberts was an American writer who, beginning in the 1960s, reported that she was able to communicate with a non-physical entity, Seth, through a process we now call channeling. Speaking through Roberts, Seth presented many insights into phenomena on these invisible planes of existence that are a central part of all occult teachings. One of the key ideas reported by Seth through Roberts was the notion that the world or universe consists not simply of realities, but possibilities. That in some sense, everything that is possible, that could have happened but which didn’t happen to our knowledge, exists somewhere.
DeGracia notes that this view has some similarities to a well known interpretation of quantum theory, first proposed by physicist Hugh Everett. The most widely accepted interpretation of quantum theory is in terms of wave-particle duality. Quantum entities are thought to have no definite location, but to exist in a probabilistic wave. When the quantum is manipulated in certain ways, however, particularly if it is subjected to measurement or even simple observation, the wave is said to “collapse”, becoming a particle with a specific location. Everett’s many worlds hypothesis avoids this problem of collapse by arguing that quantum phenomena exist in multiple universes, each universe manifesting a different possibility. In this view, what is interpreted in mainstream quantum theory as collapse is simply that we become aware of the particle’s location in one particular universe, the one we live in. The particle continues to exist in other universes, having a definite location in all of them as well, even though this location is of course not accessible to us.
DeGracia believes that Seth was referring to essentially the same idea:
Seth’s view of probable realities is almost identical to the Many Worlds view of quantum physics. Again, we have scientists and occultists saying essentially the same thing about Nature.(76)
Hugh Everett’s many world’s hypothesis is a minority view; relatively few physicists take it very seriously (though those who do are quite ardent in their support of it). But more importantly, DeGracia never points out that Everett published his many worlds theory in 1957, and another physicist, Bryce DeWitt, began popularizing it in the 1960s. Jane Roberts published her first Seth experiences at the end of 1963, so she could easily have been aware of the many worlds hypothesis. In fact, as a writer whose works included, according to Wiki, “poetry, short stories, children’s literature, nonfiction, science fiction and fantasy and novels,” Roberts not only was likely to have followed current trends in science, but had the kind of imagination that would make it easy to incorporate them into some fantasy world.
Ironically, DeGracia summarizes his discussion of Roberts by saying:
Seth introduces ideas into occultism that have no precedence in traditional occultism. That is to say, Seth’s ideas are very modern. (76)
DeGracia doesn’t seem to realize that to acknowledge Seth’s ideas as modern is not an endorsement of Roberts’ work; it’s a problem. If occultists are able to see things directly that are confirmable by science, why did someone not see these things before science found evidence for them? Why do “modern” ideas appear in occultism (and there are many other examples, some of which are discussed by DeGracia) only after they have been discovered or developed by science? What Seth seems to be seeing is not some true version of existence, but rather the one most currently held by (some) scientists. In other words, he seems to be tapping into the ideas of science, not the world that those ideas are intent on describing.
A second example of occultists claiming scientific validation after the fact is provided by the team of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. DeGracia discusses at some length how they claimed to be able perceive, through a process called micro-psi, the structure of atoms. They published numerous drawings of these atoms, and according to DeGracia, many of their insights were later validated by scientific findings. I will consider some of these briefly.
First, they described atoms as very dynamic systems, in constant, complex motion:
The spinning and vibrating motions they describe here are very common notions today, but were utterly unthinkable given the state of scientific knowledge in 1895. (107)
This claim of novelty simply is not true. Lord Kelvin, several decades earlier, had suggested that atoms were a “vortex” in the “ether” that was widely believed to exist at the time. Annie Besant, as a former chemistry student, would have been expected to be exposed to this idea. In fact, the notion of a vortex, as well as other claims of Leadbeater and Besant, were incorporated into a book, Principles of Light and Colour, by Edward Babbitt written nearly twenty years prior to the Leadbeater/Besant micro-psi studies. Some of the latter’s drawings of appear in fact to have been borrowed from Babbitt’s book.
A second point emphasized by DeGracia is that the drawings of various kinds of atoms published by Leadbeater revealed many kinds of shapes, such as cubes, tetrahedrons, dumbbells and octahedrons. According to DeGracia:
It was not until many years later that physicists discovered these same shapes in the equations of quantum theory. Today it is standard to attribute regular polygonal shapes to atoms (or more precisely to the orbitals of atoms) but again, in 1895, this was unthinkable from a scientific perspective.(108)
As far as I know, none of the shapes that Leadbeater and Besant claimed to see actually correspond to the particular atoms that they assigned them to.
First, let’s note that these shapes were not novel. Three of the seven that DeGracia depicts represent Platonic solids, obviously known for a very long time. It is really not surprising that anyone immersed in occult ideas would find significance in these shapes. One of the shapes, the tetrahedron, does in fact represent, conceptually, the structure of the fully-bonded carbon atom, but Leadbeater claimed that carbon itself had a different structure. As far as I know, none of the shapes that Leadbeater and Besant claimed to see actually correspond to the particular atoms that they assigned them to. In any case, we know enough about atoms today to appreciate that if one could actually see them directly, they would not appear as these polygonal shapes. The relationships of the subatomic particles to each other may have a strong resemblance to certain kinds of polygons, but it is a stretch to say that if we could view the atom directly, as Leadbeater claimed to do, we would see polygonal solids.
The atoms that Leadbeater and Besant claimed to see were composed of smaller particles they called ultimate physical atoms (UPA) or anu, an Indian term. The structure of a UPA that they published bears a very close resemblance to drawings of atoms published nearly twenty years earlier by Edward Babbitt, whom I mentioned earlier. One way in which the Leadbeater/Besant atom differed from Babbitt’s, however, was that the UPAs came in two different forms:
Besant and Leadbeater consistently observed that every element was made up of large numbers of only two particles which were identical to one another except that they were mirror images of one another. (108)
Again, however, there was clear scientific precedent for this description. This idea is obviously closely related to J.H. van’t Hoff’s work on stereoisomers, which had been proposed years earlier. And again, Besant’s background in chemistry surely would have made her familiar with stereoisomers. Thus their visualization of U.P.A. has all the hallmarks of Babbitt’s notion simply embellished with the newer idea of stereoisomers.
Still another important aspect of the Leadbeater work was that the number of UPAs per atom correlated closely with the atomic weight of the substance:
In their investigations they discovered a curious rule, if they counted all of the U.P.A.s in an atom and divided this number by 18, then they roughly obtained the atomic weight of that element as ascertained by science. (109)
But the atomic weights of these atoms were of course known at this time. So how can one rule out the obvious possibility that Leadbeater and Besant simply made up this 18-fold rule?
What DeGracia finds most supportive of the Leadbeater/Besant work, though, is a version of subatomic theory proposed by physicist Stephen Phillips much later, in the 1980s. Phillips claimed that the configurations that Leadbeater and Besant had reported closely paralleled what he had independently found to be the sub-quark composition of atoms:
Indeed, the most curious, if not utterly profound thing that Dr. Phillips discovered is that Besant and Leadbeater’s clairvoyant descriptions of the chemical elements are completely consistent with the Quark, Quantum Chromodynamic and Super-String theories of modern subatomic physics. This he details in great depth in his 1980 book, The Extra- Sensory Perception of Quarks. In this book, Dr. Phillips literally reconciles Occult Chemistry with modern physics. Dr. Phillips has vindicated, probably as strongly as is possible (next to clairvoyantly seeing the elements for himself), Besant and Leadbeater’s Occult Chemistry. (110)
I have not read Phillips’s book, so I can’t comment on it. I’m not a physicist, and probably unqualified to critique his theory, anyway. As DeGracia notes, it’s just one interpretation among many in currency among physicists, and future studies will presumably determine its fate. But no matter how technical and complex his theory is, what it can actually owe to the Leadbeater/Besant work is limited by the complexity of their claims. And as far as I can see, all Leadbeater and Besant claimed that is relevant to Phillips’ work is that there is a fairly constant ratio of UPAs to atomic weight. This ratio, as noted above, was eighteen, though Phillips found a ratio of nine worked for his theory, which meant he had to postulate that in the process of viewing atoms, Leadbeater fused two of them together. This is bad enough, a kind of fudging of the facts to make the theory work (one imagines that if the discrepancy were a factor of three rather than two, Phillips would have claimed that in the process of viewing the atoms, three were fused into one). But the bottom line seems to be that all Leadbeater/Besant really contributed was the notion of threes. As DeGracia quotes Phillips:
The diagram of the “hydrogen atom” was especially curious and interesting, because I immediately recognized in it the physicist’s model of a proton as a triangular cluster of three particles that he calls “quarks.” (110)
Really? So because Leadbeater found clusters of three, and protons (not atoms) are understood as three quarks, this is strong evidence of directly seeing protons? If there is much more complexity to Leadbeater’s observations than this, DeGracia certainly has failed to convey it.
I might add that no one since has replicated the Leadbeater/Besant observations. Isn’t that a little strange? If it really is possible to see atoms directly, wouldn’t you think someone else would have done it? One also wonders, if Leadbeater and Besant were really capable of perceiving atoms, indeed, sub-atomic particles, would they not have found it even easier to perceive larger structures, such as molecules and intra-cellular organelles? For example, why couldn’t they have used their micro-psi to peer into cells and discover the DNA double helix, half a century before Watson and Crick? Or describe the shapes of proteins before the advent of X-ray crystallography? There is an immense wealth of molecular detail in living organisms that should have been easily observable to someone proficient at micro-psi.
What is very clear is that at the time of their observations they had all the necessary information to formulate their claims.
In summary, while we will never know exactly what Leadbeater and Besant saw, or what Jane Roberts actually experienced, what is very clear is that at the time of their observations they had all the necessary information to formulate their claims. There is precious little evidence that they saw some aspect of reality that no one had appreciated before them, and which was subsequently confirmed by science. When one takes into account that Roberts was a writer of science fiction and fantasy, while Besant studied chemistry, the simplest explanation of their work is that they synthesized current ideas borrowed from others, embellishing the final product with a great deal of imagination.
These kinds of after-the-fact observations are not reported just by those trying to demonstrate the truth of occult teachings. Fairly reputable scientists have also been known to get carried away by the potentialities of direct experience. In the introduction to The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra claimed that he actually saw atoms one day while at the beach:
I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; I ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy.
In Molecules of Emotion, opioid researcher Candace Bert asserted she could act on individual hormone molecules in her body:
the knowledge I had of physiology…had enabled me to consciously intervene and intentionally change my molecules
When you have extensive scientific knowledge about a subject, it is very easy to visualize that knowledge, and fool yourself into believing that you are actually engaged in a direct perception of that phenomenon. As I will discuss now, DeGracia himself may have fallen into this trap.
Purple People Theater
DeGracia claims that he has on his own made many observations of phenomena on occult levels of existence. A great deal of these observations apparently come from his use of psychedelic substances. In his book, he describes one of these experiences in particular in some detail. I will quote it at some length:
One hallucinogenic drug experiment I performed with a friend was crucial in convincing me of the validity of occult claims…I was sitting on my bed looking at my wall, which was an off-white color, and the first thing I noticed was that it was breathing…Next I noticed the color and texture of the wall had changed. It had gone from an off-white to a neonish light green color and had taken on a “chalky” appearance or texture. That is, my entire visual field seemed to take on a “grainy” structure, as if everything I was seeing had been colored by chalk. And as well, I noticed that every so often a neonish purple splotch would well up out of nowhere then disappear again. I pointed out the change in the wall’s color and texture and purple splotching to my friend.
It was he who first noticed that what was really going on was that there appeared to be “pipes” and the chalky green color and purple splotches seemed to be liquids flowing through these pipes. I continued to stare at the purple splotches appearing on the wall and eventually saw that he was correct. But then I noticed that what was going on was that the chalky green color was the pipes and that the purple color was actually a liquid flowing through the green pipes. Upon staring further at the images, my friend agreed that this was indeed what we were seeing. And we sat there staring for some time at my wall which had turned into a network of green pipes, which appeared to us to be about one foot wide in our perception, with a purple liquid flowing through them. The green pipes were transparent, whereas the purple liquid was opaque. Both had a neonish texture to them.
Then as I stared harder and harder at these pipes, I began to notice new details, and then it dawned on me what I was seeing: that any given pipe we happened to stare at was actually made up of many, many little pipes, thousands of them, it looked like. It was the same way that a rope is made up of many fibers. And he noticed it too after I had pointed it out to him…
With all this going on in my vision, I noticed the most spectacular detail of them all…the purple liquid was not a liquid at all, but little purple bacteria-like creatures swimming around through the pipe structure. I was awe-struck!
I cried out to my buddy, “There’s little bacteria swimming around in our brain!” Very quickly he saw it too and we were both marveled by this. (225-229)
To summarize, DeGracia and his friend both claim to have witnessed a network of green tubes in which moved purple-colored creatures that resembled bacteria. After continuing with this description, he eventually turns to the task of explaining it in scientific terms. After some background discussion, he suggests and rejects several possibilities (including one that would probably be the first to occur to most readers, that he was looking at the flow of cells in blood vessels), then comes to the conclusion that he was observing the turnover of synapses in neurons in his brain:
I would propose that what my friend and I observed as the transient breaking up and reforming of the little green tubes was indeed this process of the transient disconnection and reconnection of synaptic junctions. (245)
As a neuroscientist, I find this idea very interesting. DeGracia thinks the green tubes represent the terminals of nerve processes, or axons, which form connections with other cells. The purple creatures are synaptic vesicles, which contain the neurotransmitter substance that, upon opening of the vesicle and discharge of its contents near the receiving neuron, trigger the formation of electrical changes that lead to a new electrical impulse.
However, it’s one thing to speculate, to note similarities to what one has seen and what one might see if one could actually observe certain small-scale processes in the body; it’s quite another to offer this as scientific evidence that is “crucial in convincing me of the validity of occult claims.” DeGracia sounds quite positive of this:
Now, from an occult perspective, there is no question in my mind that one of the effects of the drug was to allow us to exercise the psychic ability which was also used by Besant and Leadbeater called “micro-psi” or anima, though we obviously did not have the degree of control over magnification that they did. (232)
So, from the evening’s experience, I am certain that there is a thing called a psychomagnetic force and I am certain that an ecosystem of creatures exists somewhere and at some level within our brains. (242)
As I scientist, I bridle a little at such certainty. Having taken hallucinogens myself, I do understand that such experiences often carry with them the feeling of truth, of seeing the world as it really is. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to ask, what other interpretations of this experience are possible?
Well, in the first place, since DeGracia is a scientist, he has knowledge of the microscopic appearance of living processes—just as Besant had some knowledge of the structure of atoms. That this knowledge might have played a role in what he saw is tellingly suggested by DeGracia’s admission that:
It was ironic that I saw these bacteria creatures because the previous quarter in school I had just taken a class in microbiology. In that class we looked under the microscope at bacteria many times. I immediately realized that what I was looking at right then on hallucinogenic drugs looked just like the bacteria that we saw under our microscopes. I could follow these little creatures in my vision easily. (229)
Hello? Isn’t this a serious warning sign? You have the image of bacteria fresh in your mind, and suddenly you see them in a drug experience? One of the most well-documented effects of hallucinogens is to increase greatly our capacity for visualization and imagination. Doesn’t it seemly highly plausible that under the influence of the drug the mind might have focused on this particular memory, embellishing it in various ways?
DeGracia thinks the phenomena he observed were real in the scientific sense, because his companion on that trip had a similar experience:
both my friend and I seemed to see the same thing. One could say that it was wishful thinking, or that we each influenced one another somehow to make each other believe we were seeing the same things. First off, there was no belief involved. There was no imagining involved. We were quite literally seeing things. We were literally perceiving visual images. Nobody was making anything up. The whole experience was very exploratory, we were trying to make sense out of images we had never seen before. Thus, the question is: how come we both saw the same things? For if we think of these images as simply hallucinations, then there is no good reason that my hallucinations should look like my friend’s. (234)
Though this is what one would expect a scientist to point out, I find it a little ironic that DeGracia would take this approach. In another part of the book, he compares people to quantum particles, capable of resonating with each other. As I will discuss later, I think what DeGracia calls resonance can be quite adequately explained by known psychological and neurophysiological processes. But he is correct in pointing out that one person can influence what someone else perceives, and again, under the influence of a psychedelic, one would expect this effect to be enhanced.
Having used psychedelics myself, I have had the similar experience of finding that someone who was with me at the time was able to perceive, or claimed to perceive, what I did. I don’t necessarily interpret this as meaning that our perceptions were objective in the scientific sense. To me they might be explained by the vastly greater suggestibility and imagination we have when under the influence. Even in the normal state of consciousness, if someone describes something to us, we can visualize it to some extent. When taking a hallucinogen, we frequently can imagine it in a far more real sense.
DeGracia alludes to this when he notes:
An extremely interesting effect of these drug experiences is that my friend and I, and a third friend (not the third friend mentioned above) who has also had the same hallucinogenic perception, can all reproduce the effect, only at a much, much less intense level, when we are straight (i.e. not on any drugs at all). (232)
Why is the experience so much less intense, so less real, when not taking a drug? Well, most scientists would probably say because there are processes in the brain that evolved to distinguish “real” perceptions, those “out there” in the world, from ones we imagine. If such processes didn’t exist, we would not be able to discriminate phenomena essential to survival, such as predators, prey or potential mates, from some internalization visualization of them. Under the influence of hallucinogens, however, these processes may be inhibited or inactivated, with the result that we can no longer distinguish reality from imagination. Indeed, isn’t this basically the definition of a hallucination?
DeGracia says “nobody was making anything up”. But the brain is always “making things up”. Sometimes, as when we try to visualize something, we are aware of this to some extent. Other times, as when we observe something in the external world—or when we use language–we are largely if not completely unaware of this. The question is not whether something was being made up, but rather, the source of the information on which the making up process was based. Just because DeGracia and his friend were not actively trying to imagine or visualize something, just because some image came to them apparently spontaneously, says nothing about the processes that might have created that image, processes that they might not have been aware of.
I don’t want to be too hard on DeGracia here. I’m not accusing him of fraud, by any means. I’ve had enough experiences with hallucinogenic drugs to appreciate how real and profound perceptions in this state often appear to be, and I have great respect for someone who tries to come to terms with them scientifically. I’m not going to deny flat-out that he witnessed sub-cellular structures and events in his brain. Maybe he really did. But based on his descriptions, I don’t find it hard to come up with alternative explanations that, in the absence of independent proof for the possibility of micro-psi, seem far more plausible to me.
Finally, I note that, as with the Leadbeater/Besant claims to see atoms, DeGracia’s observations don’t seem very reproducible. He claims that he and his friend experience these green and purple visions regularly, but I’ve never heard of anyone else seeing them. I certainly don’t recall an experience like this when I took hallucinogens. And in fact, in my view this is a fundamental problem with interpreting drug-induced perceptions as interactions with reality—that there is so little reproducibility from one observer to another. One effect that is quite reproducible is a state of higher awareness, in which one perceives the familiar world, but is much more aware of it than one ordinarily is. In this case, I think this does count as evidence for this higher state, and indeed, my drug-induced experiences of it were a major factor in my seeking a spiritual path. But almost everything else claimed to exist on the basis of drug experiences, it seems to me, is open to debate.
If DeGracia's claims that certain occult findings have been confirmed by science seem to be exaggerated, what other means of validating them can he offer?
If DeGracia’s claims that certain occult findings have been confirmed by science seem to be exaggerated, what other means of validating them can he offer? At several points in the book, he takes a very different and unexpected tack. Rather than viewing the occult as mysterious, and largely beyond the knowledge or awareness of ordinary people, he suggests that evidence for it abounds in the kinds of experiences all of us have routinely in our lives. We just don’t appreciate it:
Here is a better illustration of a precognitive event: Let us say that during our above experiment the subject noticed that the experimenter was a bit pale, and seemed unusually tired. The thought passed briefly through the subject’s mind that perhaps the experimenter is coming down with a cold or something. Then, two days later, completely unknown to the subject, the experimenter is in bed with the flu. Indeed, the subject saw the future! Thus, by all rights this was a precognitive event. “But it is only common sense” you say. There was nothing particularly unique or special about the subject’s surmising that the experimenter was unhealthy. But the point here is that this is the essence of precognition. (131-132)
DeGracia follows this with other common, well-known examples of “precognition”, then concludes:
The essence of “mind-reading” in the above examples is this: In some sense or another, our minds can be likened to radio receivers and ideas can be likened to radio transmissions. When we think a thought we are literally broadcasting our thought into our mental environment. And there it floats ready for another mind to receive it. (135)
I have no problem at all with his claiming that these kinds of foretelling the future occur. The problem is simply, why do we need any reference to non-physical worlds into which we broadcast non-physical phenomena to explain them? Science is perfectly capable of doing the job. In the first example, you notice that the person is pale, through the process of vision. You associate paleness with poor health, perhaps unconsciously. You conclude that the person is sick, or may become so. If science can’t account for this sort of “mind-reading”, that is very big news to every scientist I know.
A little later, DeGracia quotes Leadbeater:
Thus, the social force between two people…arises from the thoughtforms emitted by the one and absorbed by the other. The thought-forms emitted by the first one make contact with the person that gave rise to them, and then they race across and make contact with the other person… The social forces between large scale objects is just the sum of these forces.” (160)
He then comments that
It is indeed uncanny that clairvoyant observations of nonphysical processes should resemble so closely the descriptions physicists use.(160)
Nonphysical psychological processes as described by clairvoyant observers follow the same general patterns as quantum mechanical processes. Or more generally, nonphysical processes appear to be describable by the same mathematical dynamic systems used in the descriptions of physical systems.(185)
But unless I missed something, he provides no evidence or mathematical equations to back up this statement. His actual evidence for comparing human communication to quantum communication seems based on rather superficial analogies. For example, in his discussion of his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, he comments:
our perception that evening had a “frame-by-frame” quality about it. Thus, our perception is discreet, just the same way that we conceive matter to be in quantum physics. This is just one more observation that shows that quantum processes occur at the macroscopic level. (243)
There are lots of discrete phenomena in nature, that doesn’t make them particularly analogous to quantum effects. For example, though the electromagnetic spectrum is continuous, and we are capable of making very fine discriminations among wavelengths of light, we generally see the world in terms of discrete colors (Berlin and Kay 1969; Rosch 1973). Though vision certainly involves quantum processes, our experiences of discrete colors can be explained by the properties of the major types of cone cells in the retina (Lakoff 1987).
Similarly, we identify discrete objects in the world, though in fact the sensory information coming to us from the world does not resolve itself in this manner. Our perception of distinct objects depends on processing in the visual cortex and other parts of the brain. Again, while quantum processes are occurring, as they always are in molecular and cellular events, the macroscopic processes that create our experience of discrete objects bear no particular similarity or analogy to these processes.
Later, in a section called Ecological Quantum Psychosociology, DeGracia expounds on this idea further, arguing that individuals are like atoms, interacting through a quantum resonance process. I like this notion to some extent. As I have discussed at length in my own book, The Dimensions of Experience, there are significant analogies between communication processes among atoms, molecules, cells and organisms, including humans. But it seems to me to be completely unnecessary to postulate non-physical fields and resonance processes:
No physical communication need occur, these processes operate spontaneously on nonphysical levels. Simply bringing two personalities (or auras) in contact will result in a field interaction between them. (284)
Communication among humans can be explained quite adequately by the physiological processes underlying the expression and reception of postures, gestures, and language. While there is still much we don’t know about human communicative processes, particularly language, there is nothing about the problem that seems inherently intractable, that demands consideration of non-physical processes. For example. when DeGracia says,
It is through contexts that we understand and communicate with each other. Again, this is a very instinctive process, and we are usually unaware that our communication is actually contextual in its nature. Contexts are often implicit frames of reference in our day to day communication. The point here is that it is generally not acknowledged how complex processes of human communication are, and how dependent these are on unspoken factors. (160)
he doesn’t seem to understand that linguists are quite aware of contexts (see, for example, Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh). Indeed the entirety of postmodern philosophy might be said to be based on this notion. All DeGracia is really entitled to claim here is that if such non-physical fields existed, they might provide a means for communication. But they are completely unnecessary as an explanation, which means that these communication processes provide no support whatsoever for the possible existence of these fields.
Why is DeGracia so intent on providing this alternative, and to nearly any scientist, completely unsupported view, of human behavior? Here he explains the benefit he sees in this notion:
The advantage of the occult view is that we can now appreciate the unique features of physical, etheric, emotional and mental phenomena as self-contained features inherent to each particular plane. That is, each particular level can be understood to be unique in its own terms, and it is not necessary to define one level in terms of the other, such as, for example, seeking a physical cause for mental phenomena or seeing a mental cause of physical phenomena. (151)
It is conceptually simpler if we can understand all the contents of our subjective awareness, our physical, emotional, and mental impressions, as sensory input from the respective planes. (155)
Is it really conceptually simpler? I would have thought it was conceptually simpler to explain everything in terms of the physical or material.
Is it really conceptually simpler? I would have thought it was conceptually simpler to explain everything in terms of the physical or material. Yes, there are major problems in understanding how emotional and mental events can arise from physical ones, but how has the occult view addressed these problems? By postulating what amounts to entire new emotional and mental worlds in which these events occur. Beyond the fact that this view is adding enormously to the conceptual baggage we need in order to understand the world, simply postulating the existence of these worlds does nothing at all to address the fundamental problems posed by the materialist view. If thoughts and feelings do not result from material processes, how do they originate? What is the origin of the other planes of existence? How do they interact with the physical world? A whole new set of problems arise, some of which appear to be every bit as intractable as those associated with the materialist view.
I think what DeGracia means, and here I agree with him, is that there is unifying elegance to the occult system, where every type of experience involves a subject interacting with some kind of object. Thus there are not only sensory objects but emotional objects and mental objects. The system is simple in the limited sense that the kinds of interactions are or may be analogous, not involving the layers of processing that science understands occur between a sensory impression and an emotion or a thought. If one understands a process at one level or plane, then through analogy one may understand what it is like at another plane.
But knowledge is ultimately based on observation, not on our feelings about how the world should be organized. A great deal is known about the complex processes in the brain that occur during thoughts and emotions, and even if the occult view that DeGracia presents were to be validated, it would still have to incorporate these processes into its system. So to the extent that science is complex, I don’t see that the occult view offers a way to simplify it much except in very general terms. In fact, DeGracia himself at one point describes the occult as “vastly complex”.
I also find elegance in the notion of what Gurdjieff used to call different degrees of materiality:
there is a definite relationship between physical and nonphysical matter. They are not distinctly different things, but gradations of the same thing. (181)
This again suggests a unity, where there really are no qualitative (I’m tempted to say, as a way of suggesting problems with this view, quantum) distinctions between phenomena, but rather only continuous or quantitative ones. But again, we have to address the phenomena we know. Currently, at least, it is hard to understand how our qualitative experiences can be considered material in a way that is continuous with the materiality of physical processes. It is one thing to say they are. It is quite another to imagine how they possibly could be.
If someone as intelligent, informed and knowledgeable about science as DeGracia is can't make a better case for the occult, I think it will continue to remain a fringe endeavor.
If I have been highly critical of DeGracia in this review, it’s because of that old saw, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. DeGracia has made a great many extraordinary claims in his book, and I find most of them not backed up by extraordinary evidence. Some of his claims may be plausible, but given the stakes involved, plausibility alone doesn’t cut it here.
To be fair, it’s important to keep in mind that DeGracia is really trying to defend two theses in this book: 1) that occult phenomena are real, they do exist; and 2) they can be understood to some extent (though certainly not in their totality) through science. I have mostly been arguing against 2). To claim that there is little or no scientific evidence for occult phenomena obviously is relevant to 1), whether they exist at all, but it is not compelling evidence. By DeGracia’s definition, occult phenomena are non-physical, so it’s hardly surprising that a system of knowledge based on observation of physical phenomena would fail to observe them.
Near the end of the book, DeGracia points out that observing the occult is associated with a personal transformation. I think he might have emphasized this more in this book. If all our observations involve both a subject and an object, then changing the subject is critical to changing the nature of the observations. Scientists must undergo a long period of formal training in order to be considered capable of making authentic observations. In mysticism, which has an uneasy relationship with the occult (DeGracia begins his book by drawing a distinction beween mysticism and the occult, yet later, all his examples of Eastern occult practices are ones in fact closely associated with mysticism) it is well understood that one can’t realize a higher state of consciousness without the practice of meditation.
Perhaps there is a set of practices—other than taking psychedelic drugs, and distinct from the meditative practice that leads to higher consciousness–that can enhance one’s ability to observe occult phenomena. DeGracia may discuss some of these practices in his other books, which I have not read. But by presenting the alleged observations of individuals like Roberts who claimed to have spontaneous encounters with the occult, and by describing his own relevant experiences almost entirely in terms of hallucinogenic drugs, DeGracia leaves the question of what exactly individuals are supposed to do hanging. He talks about changing our “relationship to our thoughts and ideas”, but doesn’t provide much insight into how this will happen, or for that matter, why it should happen. For a true synthesis of science and the occult to take place, large number of people, perhaps the overwhelming majority of us, would probably have to experience occult phenomena. Does DeGracia really think this is likely? It seems to me that if some of these phenomena that DeGracia discusses do exist, it is much more likely that they will never be experienced by more than a tiny proportion of humanity.
Beyond their belief in the validity of the evidence for occult phenomena, what motivates seekers like DeGracia is clearly an enormous dissatisfaction with the limits of science. Though it has been highly successful in transforming our practical circumstances, science continues to founder at the ultimate questions, two I think in particular:
- Where did the universe come from? If it came from nothing, how? If it came from something, what was that something and where did it come from?
- What is consciousness? How is it related to physical processes?
But as I alluded to earlier, the occult has no good answers for these questions, either. Perhaps such questions cease to exist or make sense in another plane of existence. Or maybe the answers become apparent to someone realizing one of the occult worlds, and simply can’t be communicated to those who are familiar with only the physical world. But if someone as intelligent, informed and knowledgeable about science as DeGracia is can’t make a better case for the occult, I think it will continue to remain a fringe endeavor.
1. In this and all following quotes from DeGracia, the number in parentheses refers to the page number in the online version.
2. Actually, the notion of a universe containing possibilities as well as actualities predates both Everett and Roberts. The Russian mathematician and philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, who had a keen interest in the occult and who is best known for his association with the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, discussed a similar notion in his book A New Order of the Universe, published in the early part of the 20th century. And Ouspensky makes it quite clear that this idea did not originate with him. But Ouspensky’s version of this idea is sufficiently general that it hardly counts as being validated by Everett, and I think the same can be said about Roberts.
3. This and other criticisms of the Leadbeater/Besant work can be found at: http://www.chem.yale.edu
4. Capra (1976), preface.
5. Pert (1997), p. 287.
6. It’s relevant to note in this connection that this is a well-known feature of many dreams. Often we have a dream that features a specific event from our waking existence, the day before we go to sleep, or maybe from some earlier time period. While no one knows why a particular event becomes incorporated into a dream, the fact that it frequently does illustrates the mind’s ability to take real life experiences and visualize them in some completely different context. DeGracia states in his book that he believes dreams are also experiences on a non-physical plane of existence. While I don’t agree with this, it certainly is highly plausible that a process that occurs in dreaming might also occur under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug. So it is not at all hard to believe that, having observed bacteria under a microscope for the first time, DeGracia later, after taking a drug, might have seen them in a “dream-like” state.
7. An additional problem with the entire notion of micro-psi is how to account for it in terms of what we know about the brain. DeGracia, if I understand him correctly, believes that we perceive these very small-scale events through some non-physical process. This alone strongly implies a dualistic system, with all the well-known philosophical problems that presents (in fact, given the multiple non-physical planes involved, the system contains multiple worlds that cannot, by any conventional scientific or philosophical understanding, interact with one another). Then, somehow, this small-scale information is translated into physical visual processes, apparently through coding into neural pathways. The latter must be the case, since after the drug effects wear off, the user still has the memory of the experience.
8. Tbough DeGracia is surely aware of this, he does not point out that most if not all of these psychedelic substances are neurotransmitter analogs; that is, they act by activating and/or inhibiting certain neural pathways in the brain. (As an aside, I found it incredible that DeGracia says he did not even know what substance he was taking; though I support the use of these drug, I do not advocate them for teen-agers, as apparently DeGracia was at the time). This means that their effects are quite general, having actions on very extensive areas of the brain. Thus one might expect that the specific content of these experiences might vary widely.
9. Beyond his belief in non-physical processes, I have some other problems with DeGracia’s attempt to draw analogies between quantum and human interactions. That is, even if we take the view that human interactions can be completely explained by physical processes, the analogy does not seem very convincing to me.
First, I think he’s making far too much of the similarities. Normal human interaction is only like quantum interaction in the most superficial manner. If, for
example, no quantum theory existed, all the discoveries by physicists in the early
part of the last century had never been made, no one would be observing human
behavior today and coming up with a theory about it that resembled quantum
theory even in a very general way, let alone a highly specific, mathematical way.
As far as I can see, it’s only because quantum theory exists, and the notion of
resonating waves appeals to some theorists, that these theorists imagine
interacting humans to be like quantum phenomena. In other words, quantum
processes are a contemporary model out there that can be used to think about
human behavior. In this respect, they are something like the computer model,
except I would say the computer model is still a far more applicable and relevant
Second, if one is going to claim that analogies exist on different levels, I believe
one should support that by showing that they exist on all levels, not just a select
two. In The Dimensions of Experience, for example, all the analogies I discuss
and take seriously apply to three consecutive levels: atoms and their interactions in molecules, macromolecules and macromolecular complexes; cells and their
interactions in tissues and organs; and organisms and their interactions in societies
of organisms. As one example, scale-free or small world networks, describable
with the identical mathematical equations, exist on all three of these levels. I do
not, as yet, take the quantum world seriously as an analog of processes on other
levels, because I don’t see those analogous processes on other levels: not in interactions among cells, nor in interactions among organisms, including our own species. Maybe DeGracia is onto something here; I would be very interested and sympathetic if he were. But based on what he says in this book, I remain quite unconvinced.
10. I do give DeGracia credit, though, for his perception of this issue. When his book was written, in 1993, the role of contexts in communications was less appreciated than it is now.
11. As, for example, in E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience (1999). Whatever the problems with the materialist view that Wilson promotes—and I am strong critic of his view–it does provide a unifying synthesis.
12. This raises yet another problem. According to DeGracia, thoughts and emotions are experienced differently from sensations, because while the latter involve our interaction as physical beings with a physical world, the former involve non-physical interactions with non-physical worlds. But even simple sensations give rise to qualia, which seem just as divorced from the physical world, just as difficult to explain in terms of physical processes, as emotional or mental experiences. Indeed, what is most difficult to explain about thoughts and emotions is precisely what is difficult to explain about sensations. Other aspects of thoughts and emotions—their content as opposed to their raw feel—seem quite tractable in terms of science. So while the existence of a non-physical world might seem demanded by our experience of qualia, there does not seem to be a requirement for multiple kinds of such worlds.
Berlin B, Kay, P (1969) Basic color terms: their universality and evolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Capra, F. (1976) The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambhala)
Lakoff G (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff G, Johnson M (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic Books)
Ouspensky PD (1961) In Search of the Miraculous. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich)
Ouspensky, PD (1971) A New Model of the Universe (NY: Vintage)
Pert, CB (1997) Molecules of Emotion. (New York: Touchstone)
Rosch C (1973) Natural categories. Cognitive Psychology 4: 328-350.
Wilson, EO (1999) Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage)