As I walk onto the platform a garbled announcement on the PA system informs me that the crackle for Birmingham will hiss from crackle 4.
I stroll in plenty of time to the appropriate end of platform 3. I’m glad of the bench on which to park my faded brown backpack loaded with food, coffee and a laptop. Just as I’m putting it down I hear a voice in my ear.
‘This train doesn’t usually go from 4, does it?’ The tone is full of a positive energy that sounds quite infectious.
I look up. A lady, slightly younger than me, is placing a brightly coloured shopping bag on the bench.
‘It used to but it hasn’t happened for ages. Not sure why now,’ I answer.
As we speak our train goes past the platform causing a moment of confusion before we realise it will have to reverse back onto the cul-de-sac of platform 4.
‘Where are you heading?’ she asks.
‘To the University.’
‘Oh! Why there?’
‘To run a seminar on consciousness.’
‘Oh wow!’ She almost leaps out of her skin. ‘That’s my life’s work. I’ve spent years working on that.’
‘You’re kidding,’ I say, almost equally astonished.
‘No. Honestly. It really is.’
Our train pulls to a stop behind us. We pick up our bags and wait by a door for the light to come on.
‘Do you mind if we sit together? I’d love to talk,’ she asks.
‘I’d be happy to. I will just need 15 minutes before we get to University station to go over my notes.’ (There’s copy of them for anyone interested in the footnotes.)
‘No problem. I’ll be getting off at Worcester.’
The light comes on. I press to open the door and we settle at a table close by in the warm sunlight streaming through the glass.
The talking begins between us even before I take my coat off. It continues in a constant flow thereafter. Two girls who initially chose to sit at the table opposite to us decide to move to the next carriage. The idea of an hour’s exposure to the excited exchanges of two old fogeys discussing mind, spirit, higher energy, God, the universe and an afterlife is clearly too much for them.
Later, as the train pulls out of Great Malvern I take a card out of my wallet to write down the name of the book we were just discussing: Faith, Physics & Psychology by John Fitzgerald Medina.
‘Are your details on the back?’ she asks.
‘For sure. Is it OK if I have yours,’ I ask getting out my notebook.
‘No problem. I don’t have a television, email address or computer anymore, but this is my mobile.’
I scribble it down.
‘I wasn’t planning to take this train,’ she explains. ‘But my sister wasn’t feeling well and wanted to rest so I said I’d go back early.’
‘That’s weird,’ I reply. ‘I was going to take the later train but the organiser of the seminar wanted me there earlier to set up, so I decided to travel on this one.’
We definitely conclude that our meeting is synchronicity not coincidence. Chance doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation.
She gets off at Foregate Street. I get out my notes to check, for the last time, that they will work for an interactive session with about 15 people. Well before my destination I am happy with my notes. I just watch for the tall clock tower that will signal I am nearly there.
There it is on schedule. I pack up my stuff. As I walk along the platform towards the exit stairs I ring the organiser.
‘I’m going to need my car,’ she tells me, ‘so give me time to drive around the one-way system to pick you up. It’ll take me longer than it would to walk.’
I wait in watery sunlight for the lift, with my destination in eyeshot. I am totally unprepared for what is about to happen.
In about five minutes her car pulls up. Within less than a minute we are squeezing into the cramped car park in front of the looming facade of the Medical Centre. We talk our way through the elaborate security system and I’m in the shining glass and gleaming metal entrance hall again. Memories of the last time four years ago flood back. I’ve described them before so won’t dwell on them now.
We climb the stairs to the first floor labyrinth. We fruitlessly loop round the circle of one set of seminar rooms and set off from the stairwell round the next. We are in luck. The last room we come to is the one for us.
Thirty chairs. Rather more than I was expecting but still not too many for a seminar-style approach even if the room is full.
As the system there won’t talk to my Mac, I save my Keynote slides onto a memory stick in PowerPoint format. The university computer obligingly accepts them. The first slide appears on the screen.
We’re good to go.
Fifteen minutes before we start. The room is filling up. We need more chairs. Five minutes to go and a student asks me if she can sit down in front of the first row. Before I can even answer, another student kneels down to my left.
‘That’s not necessary,’ I joke, implying I’m not a guru. She seems to get the joke but I’m not quite sure.
The professor I’ve been talking to in-between all the toing and froing, stands up at this point, looks around and says, ‘I’m going to find a bigger room.’ Our organiser goes with him. I look up towards the door and see the queue of people three-wide snaking out into the corridor.
I decide to start packing up all my stuff to set up again somewhere else. I sense this could take some time.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After what seems an eternity of fidgeting restlessly in our places, whether sitting, kneeling, pacing or standing, we’re told to follow the professor to a lecture theatre up stairs. We trail behind him chatting desultorily. When we get to the stairs there’s a traffic jam.
Stalled half-way up the stairwell on a step less wide than my foot is long I’m left with an insecure sense I might topple backwards at any moment onto the tail of the queue below .
‘We need to go downstairs to the ground floor. There’s a room there,’ someone shouts from on high.
We dutifully turn round and slowly descend. We wait in the shining entrance hall. I begin to see how many of us there are. This is definitely going to be no seminar. It really will have to be a lecture. Lectures aren’t my thing. I love bouncing ideas around in small groups, learning from others in an intense exchange of perspectives.
Still, I’m going to have to make the best of a bad job.
At last! The porter (not sure that’s the right word) comes back and leads us along a different labyrinthine corridor, from which we step into a massive hall with the lectern stuck in the far left corner away from the door.
This could be tricky, I think.
As people take their seats I set up again.
The microphone doesn’t work and it’s fixed to the desktop so I can’t carry it anyway.
I stare incredulously into the vast space around me. The front row is several feet away and the back row seems in a different dimension altogether. I’m going to have to shout. I get my flask of coffee out. I’m going to need it if I don’t want to be croaking by the end. At a conservative estimate there are about 100 people here. I’m glad I didn’t know this in advance. I’d be jelly by now if I had.
I set the slide to show the word ‘Consciousness’ again. I prepare my reluctant mind for lecture mode.
They introduce me. I start by explaining that I want to leave space for questions and feedback as we go, even though we are so many. I want to learn from their perspectives as well as sharing mine.
I try to click onto the next text with my right hand on the mouse. The right button does nothing. I need a track pad!
‘This isn’t working,’ I share. ‘I’m used to a real computer.’ They laugh. That helps.
‘Press the left button,’ a supportive voice from the front row advises.
That works. ‘Spirit, Mind or Brain,’ appears.
I ask my three questions. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is simply a product of the brain?’ Maybe forty hands or so shoot up. There are too many to count properly. ‘How many of you are more or less convinced that the mind is independent of the brain?’ Almost the same number. That’s encouraging. ‘How many have no real idea which way to go on this?’ Probably about twenty.
Things begin to settle down. The details of the kind of explanation I intended to give I will share in the next short sequence of posts. It’s close to what happens on the day but not exactly the same. I’ll keep the story very brief for now. I’ve gone on long enough.
Episodes of explanation interspersed with a few questions flow on from here for over an hour.
. . . . . before moving on to the improbability of life: how much more so of consciousness.
“Why bother investigating at all if we can’t prove anything for certain?’ someone asks later. I think after the event I should have said, ‘If science had only ever investigated what looked like a cast-iron certainty, where would quantum physics be now? By the end of the 19th Century eminent scientists thought there was hardly anything left to find out!’
As it is I offer, ‘We need to balance science and spirituality, as the Bahá’í Faith argues, if our civilisation is going to fly rather than crash even though the best we will ever get with human minds is an enhanced but still incomplete understanding which we can’t be completely sure is true.’
The muddle of models about the mind brain relationship. Isn’t monism the better idea? Is it all a solipsism?
‘Filter or spectrum?’ is the question I put. The brain as transceiver maybe.
The effects of skunk. Do psychedelics break down the filter both ways – the infrared of stuff from below and the ultraviolet of input from above?
Psi, though a small effect, is too rigorously explored and too improbable to dismiss – the issue is the explanation not the effect itself. Science has to take this seriously.
‘Isn’t all this a waste of time when we know consciousness is just the beautiful product of evolution and the massive complexity of our neuronal connections?’ asks a student in the second row. I pause to stop myself responding too sharply. I feel at least half the material so far was supposed to have dealt with that. I answer quietly, ‘Such a discount in advance of investigation dismisses countless experiences and phenomena as pure fantasy even though so many people are convinced they are real.’ I should have added, ‘Open-minded agnosticism is the only objective stance for science to take without betraying itself.’
Just before stopping I ask how many people present would be prepared to risk their reputation to investigate the spiritual aspects of consciousness. About ten people put up their hands. That is more than I would have expected. Encouraging again.
At the end there is a queue of students asking more questions and to share contact details. By the time I leave at 19.20 to catch my train I am in a daze of disbelief. I just hope I didn’t sell the topic short as I believe a more open-minded approach to the issue of consciousness is vital if we are to move towards the collaboration between science and religion that is required if we are to create a healthier society.
As I remember stating before, on my previous talk in this same building, if we place any credibility at all in the eloquently expressed arguments of scholars such as Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds, Ken Wilber in The Marriage of Sense and Soul, John Hick in The Fifth Dimension or Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary, we have to accept the likelihood that, until our society finds a better balance between spirituality and science as pathways to what is fundamentally the same truth, we are in danger of joining previous civilisations in a crash landing.
The Plan for the Seminar that Never Happened!
If there are fewer than 20 people I might ask them their names and one relevant fact.
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is entirely a product of the brain?
How many of you are virtually certain that the mind is in some way independent of the brain?
How many of you are not at all sure which way to go on this?
- ‘Doubt Wisely’
Explore the agnosticism case:
Dennet & Churchland
John Hick & Eric Reitan
- Prevalent Theories
- Eliminative Materialism
- Emergent Property
- Seen by most as unscientific
Given the improbability of life unless there really are infinite universes (the multiverse theory) the improbability of consciousness is even greater, so perhaps we need to approach the problems it poses with as open a mind as possible (cf Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma – God or infinite universes – both unacceptable to him.)
- Mind as completely independent of the brain.
This need not imply survival after bodily death but does entail the idea that the mind is not entirely reducible to the brain and that, though probably immaterial, it can control/influence the material brain (cf Schwartz).
- Mind as a spiritual entity.
This brings with it baggage our mainstream empirical materialistic culture does not welcome.
- There is a spiritual dimension including perhaps a collective unconscious and a potential capacity in all humans to access experiences without any obvious material mechanism (cf work on psi);
- There is survival after death (cf reincarnation, mediumship – inconclusive given fraud and super-psi);
- What survives is our sense of perceptive individuality in relation to others who have died, to the material world and to a transcendent power often referred to as God in Western culture (NDE evidence cf especially Sartori).
The issue should be not to say that the evidence must be seriously flawed because I know the direction it points is not possible. Rather to admit that the evidence raises serious questions that need to be investigated. Otherwise we have scientism not science. The issue is the validity of the interpretation not the validity of the evidence.
How to explore it further?
Well, experimenter expectation effects have to be taken into account. These cut both ways. The convinced will tend to elicit positive results: sceptics the opposite.
Also putting people with suspected psi through thousands of repetitions of the same task will inevitably lead to increasingly random performance. Imagine going to the optician as I did recently and have them run the dot spotting peripheral vision acuity task 1000 times. I’d probably be rated spot-blinded tunnel vision by the end as boredom and fatigue increasingly eroded my attention.
Also the threat to your career as a credible scientist needs to be addressed. Not many people are prepared to commit career suicide by investigating what has been written off a priori as delusional. Often also neither unbelievers nor believers are keen to spend years investigating what they already know to be a fact.
What we need in any case are detached and genuinely agnostic scientists to come forward (because they are most likely to obtain objectively credible results), jeopardise their careers, struggle for funding and devote decades to the exploration of an aspect of this issue.
How many of you are up for that right now?