Tweaking the Transpersonalists:
Science vs. the New Mysticism

Email posts to Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS) Online

by Roger E. Bissell

with a little help behind the scenes by Dean Brooks

May 31, 1998  

On May 24, Mark Seelig commented on recent posts on prenatal consciousness. Some of Mark's comments were so far beyond the generally accepted range of scientific findings that I am concerned that some of his more reasonable observations and remarks will be discredited as well. Perhaps I can help stabilize the discussion toward a middle course between the-fertilized-egg-as-conscious and the-six-year-old-child (begrudgingly)-as-conscious—each of which by my sensibilities and my own observations and study seems ludicrous. 

Quite a while back, I had published an essay "A Calm Look at Abortion Arguments" (Reason, Sept. 1981), in which I used neurophysiological findings then several years old to argue against 3rd trimester abortion. Steven Rose in The Conscious Brain wrote of late-term fetal awareness; Dominic Purpura's remarks were distributed nationwide via the press. Around 1978, the known threshold for "differential response" and patterned brainwaves (showing the same definite difference between waking and sleeping EEG characteristic of adult human beings) was approximately 24-28 weeks. I see by the findings cited by Gallagher that this really has not budged appreciably in the intervening 20 years.  

We are talking about measurable brain function here—the same kind that is relied on to tell whether or not coma victims are "brain dead." (Contrary to Norwood, who doesn't see how we can tell when consciousness begins in humans, we do it the same way we determine when it ends, with an EEG measurement.) And those functions clearly require a certain minimum physical foundation, which does not exist—at least, not in presently measurable terms—before the 24th week of fetal development (nor after a person's brain has been sufficiently compromised by injury or disease).  

With all the incredible advances in measuring this and that aspect of brain functioning in the past 2 decades, it is a striking fact that no evidence to revise the 24th-fetal-week threshold for consciousness has been uncovered. Seelig concedes as much by the direction in which his argument goes from there. All of the altered-state stuff is trotted out as if it were proof of something that the subject was aware of hours after his/her parents had intercourse.  

I'm sorry, but there are an awful lot of impressionable, imaginative people out there who, guided by experimenters/therapists or not, cook up this stuff for one reason or another. It's a whole lot like the false memory syndrome. My wife's 19-year-old daughter is a perfect case in point. She has a dream one night, the next morning she mentions it for a few moments; an hour later, the dream tale is 15 minutes long; the next day, it's up to an hour (if you've got nothing better to do than to listen). Now, is the 60-minute version really what she dreamt? Heck, no. But try to tell her that! Same for all these supposed near-birth experiences. With sufficient guided imagery and suggestion, anybody can imagine anything. But imagination is not research, folks. 

Curiously, Seelig is willing to set aside all this "copious" stuff and rest on "the so-called 'hard facts' of commonly accepted research standards." This alone, he says, provides enough reason to think that consciousness does not begin but is already there at conception. Yet, he provides not a single hard fact to justify this claim. He refers to "non-ordinary state research." Is that hard fact? He says our tendency to attribute "linear time" to consciousness limits our ability to understand it to something that had to have begun at some point in time.  

Well, unless you hold that consciousness oozes up from some sort of "little" quantum stuff that has always been there and just happened to get localized in a living organism, this is just nonsense. I realize there are some who do hold this (Penrose et al), but they are only able to argue their case by relying on unproven models of quantum physics). It is not only not an advancement from Plato's arguments for the pre-existence of the soul, it is a giant step backward; Plato at least did not ask that people throw aside nearly everything that they understood about physical and biological science in order to consider his notions. 

Ordinary science and common sense tell us all we need to know. Consciousness, like metabolism, is a function of living organisms—and it has certain minimal physico-chemical preconditions. Every living function is a way that organisms transform materials from the environment into something that aids in their survival; such functions help the organism preserve its biological integrity in some way or other. Metabolism requires a living cell and cannot take place without one. Consciousness requires a nervous system and cannot take place without one. (All speculation to the contrary is just that.) The nervous system/brain does not make or produce consciousness, any more than a cell makes or produces metabolism; it consciously directs the organism's actions (toward food, away from danger, etc.), just as a cell metabolically converts one substance into another.  

Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, would never have dreamed of treating the soul as if it were some other kind of stuff than the body. Instead, it was the form, the essence, of the living organism. It was the way in which the organism was alive—which varied of course from plants to animals to humans, thus the vegetative soul, the animate soul, and the rational soul. By studying consciousness as a biological function, as a way in which humans are alive, scientists are much more likely to discover its various attributes than are those who try to reduce it, in Cartesian fashion to soul-stuff or a la Leibniz to "soul atoms."  

These two radically different approaches, I claim, are the basis for the two very different beliefs that 3rd-trimester fetuses develop to the point that they can begin conscious functioning vs. newly conceived embryos already are conscious. The former have lots of hard scientific data to back up their position; and no wonder, for they are truly studying consciousness. The latter, however, have nothing but unproven quantum physics models and guided imagery experiments. Such dabbling should not even be included in the same category; it is not science. 

June 17, 1998 

I appreciate Mark Seelig's thoughtful response to my June 1st posting. Before commenting, I first want to reaffirm my belief that Mark had some reasonable observations to offer about prenatal consciousness. I also want to say as emphatically as I can that I would be the last person on earth to want to suppress Mark's or anyone else's curiosity or their desire to share their ideas with others. 

That said, my concern then is twofold: (1) I would not want others who were repelled by Mark's transpersonal ideas (such as the practice of some cultures of singing to one's child "before it's even conceived"[!]) to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, by also rejecting his valid observations about established facts such as the awareness, perception, memory, etc. of late-term fetuses (including the effects of singing or reading to one's baby before it is born). (2) I would not want those who find themselves convinced by findings of the vigorous extensions of empirical science into prenatal awareness—cited by Mark—to labor under the misconception that they are thereby logically (or in any way) required to also accept any and every unprovable transpersonal claim about prenatal awareness. 

In other words, I merely want to draw a clear line between Mark's transpersonal, spiritualist perspective and science. He draws the same line, after all; he just stands on the other side of it.  

The way Mark characterizes our viewpoints is quite interesting, considering the relative amounts of empirical support they enjoy. He repeatedly encloses in scare quotes the 'reality' that "consensus perception" and Western science focus on, while referring without scare quotes to "the large portions of the reality that we are all trying to discover here." It is interesting, because there is a growing body of literature reporting on the neural basis for a wide range of supposedly dis-embodied and/or psychic conscious experience. The earliest such piece I am aware of is Robert Efron's early 60s research on brain lesions and deja vu. More recently, findings have emerged on near-death experience—and just the other day someone brought to my attention Austin's study of the brain processes that accompany/underlie Zen experiences.  

I welcome such revelations, but I wonder whether Mark and other transpersonalists embrace them, too. After all, it represents the encroachment of "schizophrenic, imperialistic" Western science into the spiritual domain.  

The march of science—by which I mean empirical, perception-based study—continues to unify our experience, not split it off into the concrete realm of 'reality' (as Mark so qualifies it with scare quotes) and the supposedly true realm of disembodied, spiritual awareness. I completely support such organized study of all phenomena, including consciousness—and especially study aimed at uncovering the ways in which data of introspection are connected to demonstrable physical phenomena such as brain processes. And I fully accept the fact that the early stages of any field of inquiry are more focused on the basic phenomenology and description of the subject matter—that this is a frequently (if not always) necessary prelude to full-fledged scientific understanding of something.  

As Mark says, "Measurements might not be the only valid mode of acquiring knowledge. Possibly people making certain experiences do have some insights which could inform us." But as I just mentioned, there is a growing burden of proof to be dealt with by anyone who wants to claim that there are any spiritual (i.e., conscious) data that cannot be so connected to the physical. More and more traditional mysteries are yielding to the combined efforts of observation and measurement—i.e., empirical science. Again, I don't have a problem with this. I wonder, though, how Mark and the transpersonalists feel about, for instance, the uncovering of the physical basis of Zen experience (cf. Austin).... 

That, then, is my perspective—in somewhat more elaborate detail than I first presented it. I hope any misunderstandings from my earlier post have thus been cleared up. And if my position is seen as being compatible with the aims of Mark and other transpersonal psychologists, well and good. However, there are other themes prevalent in his post that lead me to think there are still gaps in understanding between us. 

For instance, Mark uses phraseology that seems to condemn the outlook of Western science as tyrannical and destructive—then tries to impress scoffers that transpersonal folks have their research data, hard facts, and "literature in masses," too. What is this if not an attempt to appeal to the empirical outlook of Western science? Is Mark not biting off his nose to spite his face—or trying to keep his cake after having eaten it? 

Secondly, Mark says that attitudes hostile to cutting-edge research on consciousness may "ridicule, pathologize, and scientistically dogmatize [I think he means "stigmatize"] experiences of thousands of people in both spiritual disciplines and modern consciousness research." And well it should! Consider the horrendous abuses—including conviction and imprisonment of scores of innocent people—in just one area: "recovered memory therapy." One has to be at least a little suspicious of spiritual disciplines in general, when one of the most prominent of them is able to con the legal system to put such great stock in the purported experiences of people who submit to the "guidance" of others with a vested interest in grossly inflating the incidence of sexual abuse. I am not a religious person, but I say God bless Elizabeth Loftus for her hard-headed, Western, "scientistic" mind!! 

But lest Mark and others think that I am trotting out the now (hopefully) discredited straw man of recovered memory theory, let me assure him that I am not ignoring "the largest portions of human spiritual history." I am well aware of, as he calls it, the "long history of those who have not hesitated to ridicule, pathologize, or simply kill those who don't adhere to views which are loitering [?] around as true..." 

For thousands of years, there has been an almost unbroken cultural linkage between spiritual revelations and outright physical brutality. No religion in history has ever renounced the initiation of force without at the same time sanctifying suffering and death. It's either Old Testament slaughter or New Testament self-immolation, but in either case there is resignation to the notion that force rules and that differences will not be tolerated.  The refugees from religious persecution in England who settled America were no less ruthlessly intolerant of the Quakers and accused witches and atheists in their midst than the Church of England had been of them—they were just less outnumbered.  And while one may say that this was long ago in the seventeenth century, it was only a few decades back that atheist testimony was routinely rejected in Western courtrooms, on the grounds that without the fear of Hell, no man could be counted on to keep an oath to tell the truth.   

One of the most persistent features of revelation—symptomatic of the supernatural worldview—is prophecies of doom.  Having achieved access to a world "higher" than this one, the prophets are eager to tell us that this world, by far the inferior, shall be destroyed.  Mark's denigration of mere "consensus reality" has something of this quality, an apparent deep animus towards resting arguments on perceptual facts or towards those who reject "spiritual discipline".  It is Mark who has brought up the subject of killing those who differ from the mainstream view, and Mark who talks about Western civilization committing "suicide".  I merely wanted to draw a line between what is science and what is not—whereas Mark sees such line-drawing as a sign of impending apocalypse.  

A further irony is Mark's mention of how my desire to "sweep the 'nonsense' of experiential work, non-ordinary state research, spiritual experience etc. out of the clean room of 'true science'" reminds him of the "dark phases" of human history, especially a certain phase of his country, Germany. Is it not already known to the members of this list that the Nazis were transpersonalists on an enormous scale?  (Though it may pain Mark to admit it, the Nazi rituals sanctifying their racial nation-state were a species of transpersonalism.)  Have we forgotten that in the upper reaches of the Party there was a vast interest in astrology and the occult? That the major German churches all enthusiastically endorsed Hitler? And that many scientists in Germany (e.g., Einstein) fled the Nazi regime? (Those who stayed, by the way, tacitly accepted the Nazi arguments about there being two kinds of logic, German logic versus Jewish-British-bourgeois logic, and saw German logic as "higher".)  This was not Western empiricism crushing fringe mystics; this was a mystical racialism seizing power.  

In contrast to the Nazi transpersonalists, I have no intention or desire to sweep anyone anywhere—apart from refusing to call a good part of what Mark wants to champion "science." This agenda should not suggest in anyone's mind that I am violently intolerant—and if it does in Mark's mind, I feel justified in pointing out who has the stronger connection to violent intolerance in history.  Mobs of scientists are not known to descend on dissident researchers and physically lynch them—whereas that is a real hazard in criticizing the revelations of the supposedly spiritually enlightened. 

It's hardly a refutation of my argument that such is not science for Mark to reply by bashing Western civilization as "schizophrenic and imperialistic." I challenge Mark to name even one non-Western society in history were he would be allowed to challenge the reigning spiritual dogmas as publicly as he and others do empirical science in the "scientistic West." I ask him to consider how the "masses" of data and literature supporting his transpersonalist claims would even exist if not for the Western paradigm and the unacknowledged value he places on it—in the very use of it! Fair is fair. If Mark wants to denigrate Western society for its "schizophrenic suicidal attempts," he ought to own up to the fact that he is standing (quite precariously, in my opinion) on the shoulders of true giants—and then consider what effect that has on the foundations of his own efforts. 

And if Mark wants to gain our acceptance for the bizarre spiritual practices of other cultures—such as singing to "children" that have not even been conceived yet!—he should consider his moral position in regard to those cultures that bind the feet of their girl children, or subject their females to clitoral circumcision, on the grounds of a spiritual tradition that regards the world around us as unreal, as "obviously" of lesser importance than the realm accessed by their "spiritual discipline." If Mark wants to campaign for what he imagines as the positive aspects of transpersonalism, he ought to answer for its negatives, too. If "spiritual disciplines" are relevant to consciousness studies, and I believe they are, then they are relevant in their entirety, not merely those aspects which are seen as benign.  

Perhaps Mark has misunderstood me as some kind of crass materialist. I hope it's clear by now that I am not one. However, I am opinionated, and I do care about science. And one of my deepest, most sincere opinions is this: the excesses of the materialist focus on rats and pigeons and a life "beyond freedom and dignity" are not remedied by a radical shift to a focus on embryos and microtubules and an awareness beyond time and space. Both camps err in shirking the true responsibility of the science of psychology: understanding the nature of human beings and their consciousness here on earth

There is plenty of room under the broad mantle of genuine, empirical science for exploration, observation, measurement, and theorizing—without having to reduce human life to either the products of reflexes and glandular twitchings or the products of untrammeled, deuces-wild human imagination. Is it possible we could agree about this?