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The Flip: Who you really are and why it matters, by Jeffrey J. Kripal

27 November 2020

Mark Vernon considers an argument about life-changing experiences

DID you know that Albert Einstein wrote the preface to a book on telepathy, advocating investigation of the phenomenon? Or that Marie Curie attended séances? She wondered if her scientific interests overlapped with paranormal manifestations.

These are just two of the dozens of scientists, intellectuals, and writers that Jeffrey Kripal, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, Texas, discusses in his new book. For many years, he has been writing about seemingly impossible things, such as near-death experiences, alien abductions, paranormal events, and psychic abilities. The culmination of his inquiries is now presented in this mass-market paperback. It is a plea that they be taken seriously.

“Flipped” is Kripal’s word for experiences that overturn world-views — or, at least, rock people to the core. Mark Twain had precognitive dreams that eventually led him to publish articles on “mental telegraphy”. Barbara Ehrenreich one day encountered a world that “flamed into life”, unsettling her atheist upbringing.

Alongside the stories, Kripal examines the scientific Establishment’s scepticism, even though minds as cool as Jessica Utts, the 2016 president of the American Statistical Association, concluded that “anomalous cognition is possible and has been demonstrated.” This proof includes the gold standard of replication across laboratories and cultures.

Part of the problem is that scientific materialism has no imaginative space for these phenomena. Another issue is that they are often associated with traumatic moments in life, which is to say, intense emotion. That does not sit well with the supposedly dispassionate outlook of science.

He is particularly interesting on why such events are frequently so odd. He argues that they are received reflexively, which is to say that the content of any given experience is shaped by the individual’s personal history and psychology.

This does not mean that it is not a perception of reality. It is to note that all our perceptions of reality are shaped by our imagination. It is why Christian visionaries see the Virgin Mary, not Lakshmi or Siva. The mistake is to assume that the content is the meaning of the experience rather than interpret it as a form that communicates wider reality.

Kripal hopes that flips will persuade people of the necessity of greatly expanding current avenues of research, in subjects from physics to psychology. What is missing is the possibility that consciousness is not a by-product of dead matter, but is irreducible in nature.

This possibility should appeal to theists, although it’s striking that Christians often seem wary of the supernatural. That might be because it appears amoral and dangerous, or, more subtly, because the origins of Christianity are closely tied to specific supernatural events. Admitting that there are more feels threatening.

This is, I think, mistaken. The evidence that Kripal and many others have gathered shows that these experiences are widespread. They have not stopped with secularisation. In fact, they can be understood as a lost side of reality reaching out to us once more. Discerning what that means should be at the heart of religious life.

Dr Mark Vernon is a writer and psychotherapist.


The Flip: Who you really are and why it matters
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Penguin £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 

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