The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters, by Jeffrey Kripal

Michael Marinetto enjoys a bold attempt to challenge the scientific consensus about consciousness

May 14, 2020
Conceptual artwork representing a near-death experience
Source: Getty

In 2014, Jeffrey Kripal broke the ultimate academic taboo. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the professor of philosophy and religious thought at Rice University did the unthinkable and questioned science. Specifically, he disputed the notion that consciousness is an emergent property of matter (tissue, cells and neurons). Rather, it is the deepest level of reality itself. To unlock its nature, we should look to the supernatural realm – to telepathy, near-death experiences, psychokinesis, precognition and past-life memories.

Kripal’s essay was too much for Jerry Coyne, professor of evolutionary science at the University of Chicago. In the New Republic, he not only lambasted the Chronicle for promoting non-materialist ideas but lashed out at Kripal for his bizarre “woo woo New Age science bashing”. In his new book, The Flip, Kripal extends his controversial woo-woo science bashing over 200 pages. It is safe to say that it will not feature on Coyne’s self-isolation reading list.

As I read the book, I wondered if Kripal was being courageous or foolhardy. For these are dangerous days to be accused of bashing science. As the pandemic engulfed the globe, political ideologues initially dismissed Covid-19 as fake news or mere flu, delaying an immediate and concerted response. Anti-science will have cost many thousands of lives.

Yet Kripal is not anti-science so much as anti-materialist. Science offers great insights about the world, as does religion, in his view, although neither has all the answers. The Flip attempts to set out a third way between the dogmatism of both.

“Flipping” refers to a spiritual epiphany of the non-religious variety. It means converting to a new cosmic consciousness, often as a result of an unusual experience. It is not the preserve of New Age oddballs, those who believe in conspiracy theories about the US Air Force’s classified Area 51 facility in Nevada or have been on too many acid trips. Kripal is keen to point out that the intelligent and the respectable have also flipped.

The case histories that litter his book feature medical professionals, engineers, computer scientists, intellectuals, philosophers – and even a few Nobel laureates. As the journalist Will Storr discovered in researching his 2015 book The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, “Intelligence is no protection against strange beliefs.”

There are few absolute certainties in The Flip. But neither is it based on mere conjecture. Throughout, Kripal is “publicly struggling” with and “thinking-through” flipped experiences and what their wider implications might be. If we are not prepared to believe him, he implores us to listen to scientists. And he presents a range of testimonies not just about the limitations of science, which is hardly controversial, but about the reality of anomalous forms of consciousness. There are paranormal testimonies from historical figures such as the pioneering quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli and Marie Curie. And there are contemporary accounts from Bernardo Kastrup, Edward Kelly and Marjorie Hines Woollacott. Kripal also cites the recently deceased theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, who stated in a 2009 New York Review of Books article on extrasensory perception that “paranormal phenomena are real but lie outside the limits of science”. Yet evidence of ESP activity will always be anecdotal, argued Dyson, because laboratories exclude the conditions and emotions that make ESP possible.

Physics, or rather the quantum revolution, provides fertile support for the sui generis qualities of consciousness. For recent physics does not describe a neat Newtonian universe, full of order and law-like matter. As Kripal puts it: “matter is not material…it is made up of bizarre forms of energy that violate, very much like spirit, all of our normal notions of space, time and causality.” He also quotes the paradoxical phrase of the American physicist Abner Shimony that quantum reality is “objectively indefinite”. Drawing on Alexander Wendt’s idea of the quantum mind, Kripal finds that most paranormal phenomena look like quantum phenomena scaled up into the macro-world of human beings.

Still, the materialist interpretation of the world remains dominant, even in relation to quantum uncertainties. We are expected to believe that consciousness is a random evolutionary accident and that psychic anomalies are cognitive illusions. It might be assumed that this hegemonic dominance is based on overwhelming evidence. For Kripal, however, it’s down to politics or the professional politics of science. Subtle and explicit forms of professional censorship keep everyone on the materialist straight and narrow – although the book fails to explain how the scientists featured in it managed to flip against these professional norms and still kept their reputations and their jobs intact.

It would be a mistake to read The Flip as just another academic contribution to the growing body of materialist-sceptic philosophy. It does cover and synthesise a range of current philosophical and scientific thinking about consciousness – panpsychism, the quantum mind, cosmopsychism. But it also has grander ambitions. For seeing the world through a flipped mind – where everything is alive, everything is connected and in effect “One” – also has implications for how we organise ourselves socially and morally. So Kripal ends his book with something of a flipped manifesto, which advocates, inter alia, a cosmic humanism, where barriers between people and societies break down, and a deep form of ecology.

So exactly how does Kripal think this flipped revolution can be achieved? Perhaps surprisingly, through the humanities. Engaging with such disciplines remains the most effective way of translating the flip philosophy of life into sustainable economic, social and political forms. To do this, they need to be reimagined as “the study of consciousness coded in culture”. Yet they are highly suited to this because their intellectual origins reside in the study of the cosmic realm: the magical interests of the Renaissance, the theological projects of European monasteries and the magical impulses of the ancient Greek academies.

Presenting the humanities as the revolutionary harbingers of a transformative cosmic consciousness is probably the most fanciful argument advanced here, even in a book that maintains with a straight face that ESP, near-death experiences and abduction experiences are authentic. Yet the humanities are in no fit state for these grand designs. As Kripal himself admits, “the humanities are nearly as policed by classical materialism as the sciences are”. If anything, they are the harbingers of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the secular age”. And scholars from the humanities have also confidently declared, having sidelined God, the death of the subject.

As we reflect on Kripal’s “flipped theory”, it might worth asking: should an academic philosopher who believes in extrasensory perception be taken seriously? Alongside his status as a bona fide academic, Kripal is an associate director of research at the Esalen Institute in California, which is to the New Age movement what the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton is to physics. Clearly, he is a firm believer in a paranormal consciousness, and The Flip will surely attract more detractors than devotees among scientists and academics.

And yet it’s too easy to dismiss it as just anti-scientific superstition. There is a collective commitment among scientists to what Kripal calls “promissory materialism”: the teleological inevitability that one day everything, including consciousness, will be explained by a mechanical materialistic framework. To quote Storr’s The Unpersuadables again: “We typically have a bias that tells us we are less susceptible to bias than everyone else.” That applies also to academics and scientists. I for one am far less convinced by this dogmatic belief in the ultimate power of science than by Kripal’s claims about consciousness.

Mike Marinetto is reader in management at Cardiff University and has a long-standing interest in the philosophy of consciousness and its application to business ethics.

The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters
By Jeffrey J. Kripal
Penguin, 240pp, £8.99
ISBN 9780141992563
Published 23 April 2020

The author

Jeffrey J. Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor professor of philosophy and religious thought (and associate dean of the humanities) at Rice University in Texas, was born in Hebron, Nebraska, and recalls an “idyllic” childhood and adolescence “growing up with farmers (on my mom’s side) and small business owners (on my dad’s side). I also played a lot of sports: American football, basketball and baseball.”

Because he had decided he wanted to be a monk, Kripal went to a Catholic seminary, where he “became fascinated with the historical and comparative study of religion. I then went on to the University of Chicago, where I did an MA and a PhD in the history of religions. The latter discipline has long taken anomalous or ‘mystical’ experiences extremely seriously, that is, as the originating core of the religions.”

In his “early work on Catholicism and Hinduism”, therefore, Kripal “looked at these same mystical currents and was mostly interested in their erotic patterns…When I later encountered contemporary individuals reporting a whole spectrum of astonishing experiences, I found my historical materials ‘come to life’, as it were. What I thought were exaggerated or legendary events in the historical texts, I was now confronting in person. I realised these were very much a part of human experience, even if we refused to think about them today.”

Asked about any hostility or mockery he receives for his work on paranormal events, Kripal responds that “people, including and especially trained scientists and intellectuals, are mostly ‘in the closet’ on this one. They know perfectly well that such things happen, and all the time. They just can’t talk about these events in public or in their professions. But they will talk about them in private, and with great passion and conviction.

“I think it’s time we move beyond eye-rolling. It’s time to realise that we are way weirder than we have been told.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Keys to the doors of perception

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles