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Reaching for Reality—The Rise of Consciousness


People typically try to understand reality.
People typically try to understand reality. ©Unsplash/Hunter Bryant

The following article is a revised version of a presentation given by Dr. Dean Radin at the Second International Conference on Science and God (ICSGII). The original title of the author’s presentation was “Revising Our Concepts about Reality: The Challenge of Consciousness.”

 

Scientific ideas about the nature of the universe radically evolved in the twentieth century. Advancements in many areas, from physics to psychology, caused major changes in how people thought about themselves, their place in the universe, and their understanding of the physical “fabric of reality.”


Science will continue to evolve in the twenty-first century, with some of the most revolutionary advancements coming from the study of consciousness. A growing number of scientists are asking, for instance, how the physical brain can account for nonphysical, subjective experience (qualia). They are looking at evidence of exceptional cognitive skills, as well, such as genius, and nonlocal forms of awareness, such as telepathy, and wondering how this evidence will influence our understanding of the mind-brain relationship.


Questions such as these not only challenge the established belief (in neuroscience) that the mind is solely a product of brain activity, but they also challenge the accepted scientific doctrine called materialism.


After twentieth century historian Thomas Kuhn wrote on the “structure of scientific revolutions,” it was better understood that unexpected phenomena (anomalies) encountered in a scientific field are strongly resisted by the status quo. Evidence supporting the existence of anomalies is seen as insufficient—or worse, labeled as pseudoscience.


Eventually, evidence improves and accumulates until it becomes overwhelming and forces a shift in thinking.


The scientific, technological, and sociological reverberations of such an ideological shift could dwarf all previous advancements in human knowledge.

As anomalous (unexpected) phenomena associated with consciousness are better understood, the materialistic foundations of science could experience a meta shift in thinking by the turn of the next century. Materialism may come to be seen as a special case within a more comprehensive worldview, one that sees consciousness as fundamental.


The scientific, technological, and sociological impacts of such a shift could dwarf all previous advancements in human knowledge.


Such a surprising turn of events—one of many found in the history of science—reminds us why unexpected phenomena deserve very close attention. Sometimes, like clouds on the horizon, they evaporate after slight revisions to existing ideas. But sometimes they persist like puzzles for decades or centuries. In such cases, their solutions may usher in startlingly new concepts, technologies, and even new forms of civilization.


Consciousness Clouds


Today, we are faced with two very persistent clouds, commonly known as qualia and quanta. The word “qualia” refers to the nature of subjective experience and “quanta” to the fact that quantum objects are exquisitely sensitive to being observed.


Both clouds raise questions about the nature and role of consciousness in the physical world. Both are major challenges to the scientific model called reductive materialism—the assumption that everything, including mind, consists of matter and energy, and that any system, no matter how complex, can be completely understood by reducing it to its basic physical components.

consciousness
©Institute of Noetic Sciences

Some neuroscientists insist that qualia are a nonproblem because consciousness is an illusory side effect of brain processing (Churchland 1986; Crick 1994). 


Others propose that any physical system as complex as the brain will spontaneously develop conscious awareness through some yet unknown process.


Some physicists believe that the quantum observer effect is also a nonproblem because consciousness plays no role in physics or that the problem is already solved by concepts like decoherence (Schlosshauer 2007).


Many scientists today undoubtedly assume that these two “consciousness clouds” will eventually be understood in conventional terms.


I believe that sentiment is wrong.


These two clouds have stubbornly resisted orthodox explanations. Instead of fading away in the light of existing theories, qualia and quanta are omens of paradigm-shifting superstorms. They are also the leading edge of related clouds, each more challenging than the last.


These related clouds include the phenomena of genius, savants, near-death experiences, mediumship, reincarnation cases, and laboratory studies of psychic phenomena. All these phenomena suggest that the mind is not limited to the operations of the physical brain.


Genius 


No one who studies the lives and works of Mozart, da Vinci, Copernicus, Shakespeare, Einstein, or Ramanujan can doubt that genius is real, though rare.  


True genius is a persistent source of paradigm-shattering creativity that defies our understanding of mindless electrochemical activity in a brain that is strictly limited to ideas it has already absorbed.

The challenge presented by genius is to imagine how the mind, seen solely as a product of brain processing, could generate world-changing mathematical theorems, breakthrough scientific ideas, hypercreative inventions, and masterwork books and musical compositions, all seeming to appear out of the blue, often uninvited, and fully formed (Schwartz 2010, Heilman 2016).


If these ideas appeared once in a person’s lifetime, we might dismiss them as a fluke. But true genius is a persistent source of paradigm-shattering creativity that defies our understanding of mindless electrochemical activity in a brain that is strictly limited to ideas it has already absorbed (Lingg and Frank 1973; Pandey 2001).


Savants 


Autistic savants have little to no social skills and low IQs, and yet they can display supernormal capacities of memory, musical talent, artistic talent, or lightning-fast mathematical calculations (Dossey 2012; Cowan and Frith 2009; Welling 1994). 


The Academy Award-winning movie, Rain Man, was based partially on the life of savant Kim Peek, who among other things could correctly and instantly recall every word of the estimated 12,000 books he had read.


Psychiatrist Darold Treffert, discussing autistic savants, wrote that “Kim Peek possesses one of the most extraordinary memories ever recorded. Until we can explain his abilities, we cannot pretend to understand human cognition.”

Savants
©Institute of Noetic Sciences

Treffert also described the case of Leslie Lemke, who “is blind, severely cognitively impaired, and has cerebral palsy. Yet he played back Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 flawlessly after hearing it for the first time at age 14.”


If one were to test normally healthy pianists who had not previously heard this concerto, it is safe to say that none of them would be able to do this.


Treffert describes the phenomenon of acquired savants, in which case, as the result of an accident, a normal person suddenly gains savant skills.


There are also the completely astonishing cases of sudden savants, apparently normal people who spontaneously gain savant skills for no known reason.


How the brains of autistic savants work is a major problem for the neurosciences. Perhaps at some point such savants’ skills might be explainable via conventional concepts—but how similar skills can arise in acquired or sudden savants remains a baffling mystery.


Psychic Phenomena 


There are no broadly accepted explanations for the talents of geniuses and savants. Because they are so rare, they are easy for skeptics to set aside while they concentrate on understanding “ordinary” people. This is why commonly reported psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, are important to consider. These experiences have been reported by ordinary people throughout history, across all cultures, and at all levels of educational experience.


Commonly reported psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, are important to consider [because] these experiences have been reported by ordinary people throughout history.

Rather than having to rely on astonishing anecdotes for evidence, a wealth of strictly controlled experimental studies in this field can be found in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (Radin 1997, 2006, 2013, 2018).

Psychic phenomena
©Institute of Noetic Sciences

Today, this topic is still regarded as controversial—but not because empirical data are lacking. The implications of these phenomena are so difficult to accommodate within a materialistic model that critics find it easier to imagine that the evidence is surely flawed in some unspecified way. Some insist on a suitable explanation before they will even look at the data.


Testing for Telepathy


To illustrate the kind of evidence that is available, we will briefly review one type of telepathy experiment.

Telepathy involves communications between minds without the use of the ordinary senses, and without regard to distance or shielding.


A ganzfeld experiment.
A ganzfeld experiment. ©Radin/HJIFUS

One of the most successful methods for testing telepathy in the laboratory is called the ganzfeld method (meaning “whole field” in German).


In this experiment, a “receiver” of telepathic information has a halved ping-pong ball placed over each eye, the face is illuminated by a soft red light, and white noise is played over headphones.


This state of mild, unpatterned sensory stimulus is thought to be conducive to sensing telepathic impressions.


While in this state, the receiver is asked to be open to any ideas or feelings gained while holding a distant “sender” in mind.


One photo is randomly selected out of a pool of four photos, where each image depicts a real object or scene with a clearly identifiable theme. The colors, shapes, and content of the four photos are as different from one another as possible.


The selected photo is given to a sender—who is strictly isolated from the receiver—and he or she is asked to mentally send that photo to the receiver. Note that the use of the words sender and receiver emphasizes that these terms are descriptive only; they do not suggest underlying mechanisms.


The sender now tries to mentally transmit the contents of the target photo to the receiver for 20 minutes. During that time, the receiver is relaxing in the ganzfeld state.


After the sending period, the receiver—still strictly isolated from the sender—is taken out of the ganzfeld state and shown all four photos, one being the chosen target along with the three nonchosen decoys.


If telepathy does not exist, then the chances of the receiver correctly selecting the actual target in this design is one in four, or 25%.


If telepathy does exist, and the experiment followed the strict isolation rules, then the hit rate would be higher than 25%.


Because chance is 25% in a single trial, performing this test just once would not provide confidence that telepathy does or does not exist. However, what if the same test were independently performed by dozens of laboratories around the world for a half-century, and during that time nearly 4,000 such tests were performed? The statistical power provided by that many trials would then provide strong evidence either in favor of or against the existence of telepathy.  


Meta-analysis 


A meta-analysis is a statistical method for combining the results of numerous experiments based on similar designs. It provides a way to tell if the effects studied in an experiment are repeatable and whether those effects are attributable to chance.

The Logic of Science
The Logic of Science/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Meta-analysis is used in virtually all the experimental sciences today—but especially in the psychological, social, and medical sciences. Effects in those areas tend to be highly variable, so it is not possible to establish repeatability in a single experiment.


From 1974 to 2018, dozens of authors published 117 articles describing the results of their ganzfeld experiments. Meta-analyses of these studies were conducted seven times, spanning different time scales   Each of these seven meta-analyses resulted in independently significant outcomes in favor of telepathy. [See the following associated reference links: (Honorton 1985; Bem and Honorton 1994; Milton and Wiseman 1999; Storm and Ertel 2001; Bem, Palmer, and Broughton 2001; Storm, Tressoldi, and Di Risio 2010; Storm and Tressoldi 2020)].


Repeatable telepathic effects have been observed by dozens of independent investigators around the world for nearly a half-century.

This means that repeatable telepathic effects have been observed by dozens of independent investigators around the world for nearly a half-century.


Taking into account all 3,885 reported ganzfeld tests using four targets, there were 1.188 hits, for an overall hit rate of 30.6. 5% over the chance rate of 25 may not seem very impressive, but from a statistical perspective, the overall result is associated with odds against chance at 10,000 trillion to one (Figure below, left side).

Noetic Sciences
©The Institute of Noetic Sciences

One common critique of this result is that some ganzfeld experiments probably failed, which discouraged the investigators from reporting their studies. Selective reporting would indeed bias the overall result to make it seem stronger than it really was.


Critics who have studied the relevant literature in detail have agreed, however, that selective reporting cannot eliminate the overall positive results. In addition, meta-analytical estimates of the number of presumed unreported “failed” experiments that would be required to nullify the known results confirms that that explanation is implausible.


Other critics have questioned whether there might be flaws in the experimental design that would allow the receiver to somehow gain information about the target. Over the years, as critics suggested potential loopholes, each potential flaw was systematically eliminated, and yet the same results continued to be observed.


After fifty years of such critiques, skeptics familiar with these studies admit that they can no longer identify any plausible explanations other than telepathy for these results. Even skeptics who had disavowed belief in any sort of psychic phenomena, but conducted this experiment themselves, obtained the same results as found in the meta-analyses.


Conclusion


If reductive materialism does not easily accommodate the challenges presented by the existence of genius, savants, and telepathy—and many more examples—then what alternative model might be considered? A viable approach is the philosophical view of idealism, which holds that consciousness is fundamental.    


Explaining this proposal in detail would take more space than is available for this article, so it can simply be said that most physicists who founded quantum theory were idealists, and yet their worldview did not prevent them from developing the most successful physical theory in history. Their achievements demonstrate that science can advance perfectly well, even when based on a very different set of assumptions about the nature of reality.


Unlike materialism, from an idealistic perspective the various anomalies associated with consciousness are far easier to accommodate. This is because in idealism, consciousness is not constrained by physical concepts like space, time, matter, or energy.


If consciousness is not limited by such physical laws, then it is plausible that it is also not limited to gaining information through the ordinary physical senses—nor is it limited to the operations of the brain. This opens the door to understanding a variety of subjective experiences.


Despite the undeniable success of materialism as an ideology for understanding the physical world, the empirical and historical facts are that unexpected experiences do happen, even in controlled laboratory experiments. Thus, it is no longer a matter of whether materialism will be superseded by a more comprehensive worldview, but when.


NASA stars
NASA/Wikimedia (Public Domain)

[Image 009]


 

*Dr. Dean Radin is Chief Scientist, Institute of Noetic Sciences, Novato, California; Associated Distinguished Professor of Integral and Transpersonal Psychology, California Institute of Integral Studies; Founding Board Member, Academy for the Advancement of Postmaterialist Sciences; and Editor of the Elsevier journal Explore since 2009.  


References: 

Radin, Dean I. 1997. The Conscious Universe. San Francisco: HarperOne.

———. 2006. Entangled Minds. New York: Simon & Schuster.

———. 2013. Supernormal. New York: Random House.

———. 2018. Real Magic. New York: Penguin Random House.

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