July 23, 2015

Psychology, Science, and Spirituality

Beyond Physicalism
Toward Reconciliation of Science
and Spirituality
Edited by Edward F. Kelly, 
Adam Crabtree, and Paul Marshall

Our book itself is the latest product of a fifteen-year collaboration involving an uncommonly diverse group of participants including scientists, scholars of religion, philosophers, and historians, among others. Brought together under the auspices of Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR) by its guiding spirit, Michael Murphy, we are in many ways representative of the sorts of people we view as our primary target audience—scientifically minded, intelligent adults with broad interests, who regard themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” in any conventional sense, and who are skeptical of the mainstream scientific vision sketched above but equally wary of uncritical embrace of any of the world’s major religious systems with their often conflicting beliefs and decidedly mixed historical records.
It took a long time and a lot of hard work for us to overcome sufficiently for practical purposes the deep stylistic and ideological differences that typically impede communication between scientific and humanistic scholars—the “two cultures,” in the terminology of C. P. Snow—and we have sometimes joked about our task being rather like that of building the transcontinental railroad.

Our current core group includes, in addition to the chapter authors identified below, Bill Barnard, Deb Frost, Bruce Greyson, David Hufford, Emily Kelly, Jeff Kripal, Gary Owens, Bob Rosenberg, Charles Tart, Jim Tucker, and Sam Yau. We thank all those who have read and commented on some or all of the chapters: these include Eben Alexander, Ross Dunseath, Bill Eastman, Jim Gilchrist, James Keaten, Fritz Klein, Jim Lenz, Jared Lindahl, Rafael Locke, Ohkado Masayuki, Binita Mehta, Andreas Sommer, and Vik Vad. Special thanks to John Cleese, Deb Frost, Gary Owens, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences for financial support of the project at various critical times, and to Steve Dinan and Frank Poletti for efficient organization and administration of our many meetings. Most of those meetings took place, appropriately, in the unique ambience provided by Esalen’s CTR community, operating as it does outside conventional academic boundaries, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur.

Above all, we again thank Michael Murphy for initially conceiving this project, for bringing us together in the spectacularly stimulating environment of Esalen, and for his apparently limitless reserves of comradeship, wit, and wisdom.

First some history: our group came into being in 1998 under the auspices of Esalen Institute’s Center for Theory and Research, focused initially on the considerable but still little-known empirical evidence for the possibility of postmortem survival (see following chapter; parenthetically, this gave rise to our nickname—“Sursem,” from “survival seminar”). We spent our first two meetings presenting and discussing the existing evidence for survival and surveying some possible alternatives to physicalism, and by the end of the second meeting a concrete plan of action had emerged. We saw clearly that our work needed to proceed in two overlapping stages: first, to assemble in one place the main lines of evidence demonstrating the empirical inadequacy of conventional physicalism; second, and even more challenging, to try to find some better conceptual framework to take its place.
An ideal vehicle for the first stage was available in the form of the extraordinary magnum opus of F. W. H. Myers, entitled Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, published in 1903. Myers, one of the founders in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research, had systematically collected evidence of human capacities that resist explanation in conventional materialist terms, and on that basis had advanced an expanded model of human mind and consciousness that was greatly admired by many leading contemporaries including William James. We were also aware that James himself had explicitly applied this model to his psychological studies of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and that he had gone on to explore possible further extensions in his late metaphysical work A Pluralistic Universe (1909). We therefore decided to take advantage of the impending centennial of Myers’s landmark contribution by revisiting and reevaluating it in the context of the subsequent century of relevant psychological and neurobiological research.
This turned out to be a mammoth project—far larger than we imagined at the outset—but it resulted in the publication in 2007 of Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (Kelly, Kelly, Crabtree, Gauld, Grosso, & Greyson, henceforth IM), an 800-page behemoth that also included on CD a complete copy of Myers’s Human Personality itself (1,400 pages in two volumes) plus its five most significant contemporary reviews. Parenthetically, IM has subsequently been released in paperback without the CD, but all of that supplemental material and several other relevant scholarly resources are now freely available on the Esalen website at

Chapter 13, by Eric Weiss, provides a concise introduction to “transphysical process philosophy,” his extension of Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics in light of the mystical philosophy of the modern Indian Tantric sage Sri Aurobindo, and shows how it can potentially accommodate most of our targeted phenomena. Important context for this chapter is provided by the comfort that many theoretical physicists have with the use of Whitehead’s system, updated as necessary in light of more recent developments in physics, as a possible way of rounding out the ontological side of quantum theory.

Meanwhile, we have placed on the Center for Theory and Research (CTR) website as supplemental material for this chapter a summary prepared by Mike of the main features of the case (

The early SPR took a special interest in such events, carefully collecting and documenting large numbers of cases, and produced as its first major work the landmark two-volume study Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886), which is also freely available (thanks to Bob Rosenberg) on the CTR website. Enjoyed the preview? Buy now 

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